Archive for May 26th, 2009


NYC vs Tokyo / Yokohama part 1

Another of my very responsive readers, XO-san, made the following request of me: …How about something on how the design of cities/transportation systems impacts life in Japan and how that compares to NYC?

I’ll give it a shot…anything for my loyal readers…

Well, the most conspicuous difference in design is this: NY was designed with a grid in mind and so getting around NYC is really simple. For example, the Avenues go north and south and the streets east and west. So finding 42nd Street and 8th Avenue on a map is like finding a point on a globe using longitude and latitude.


Impact: If you ask most any New Yorker how to get to a place or where a place is whether you have an exact address or not, they can pretty much lead you in the right direction or give you directions with laser accuracy.

Try that in Tokyo.

Manhattan has to be one of the simplest cities to navigate (I should say north of Canal Street…to be honest. Below Canal Street, as the island narrows, can get a bit confusing if you’re from out of town.) Almost every street has a N-S-E-W  designation and, at minimum, a name and fairly easily discerned numbered buildings.

However this NY grid design mainly applies to Manhattan which is a rather small part of NYC. Brooklyn, Queens and The Bronx, which make up the bulk of NYC, I’m afraid, are not on a grid…The Bronx is a goddamn maze, Queens, though grid-like in areas, has the most fucked number system ever, and some of the major thoroughfares in Brooklyn were at one time Native American trails and the European ‘settlers’ pretty much stuck with them. Some of these trails skirted obstacles like hills and swamps, and though the hills and swamps are mostly long gone or hardly obstacles to motorized vehicles, these roads still wind and stagger their way around the borough.

For example: in Brooklyn, one of the major thoroughfares across the borough is called Kings Highway. It has a fascinating history which explains why its design is rather unique.

Tokyo, unlike Manhattan but similar of the other NY boroughs, is also very difficult to navigate unless you know exactly where you’re going. To put it mildly, it’s a challenge to the natives and a rather significant challenge to foreigners…sometimes impossible. And maps only ease this marginally. Though the main streets are pretty clear cut, which eases trips between neighborhoods, inner-neighborhood streets are ridiculously pointless sometimes, starting from nowhere and going nowhere yet containing important institutions. Usually there are no visible street names and building numbers are also a mystery to the less than savvy of us. And this is in the commercial areas. The densely populated residential areas are almost an impossibility to navigate. I wouldn’t be surprised if the mail carriers get lost. Taxi Drivers, those guys and gals who should have a working knowledge of such places are sometimes at a lost to find an address even a few minutes from their taxi stand (and charge an arm and a leg in the meantime).

For comparison, in NY, a Middle Eastern Taxi driver with a limited English vocabulary could take you to anywhere on the Manhattan grid without your even having to repeat yourself. (However if you mention a Brooklyn or Queens address – and since Manhattan drivers are not fond of making trips to outer boroughs or above 11oth Street (Harlem) he might invite you to get out of his car or claim ignorance, and if you’re black or latino he might not even stop for you in first place.) In Japan, I’ve never had a driver refuse me or blatantly bypass me…a disturbingly normal occurence in the NY I grew up in!

Another thing about NY is that…well at least it used to have character. Each area of Manhattan had a distinct flavor…If you went to, say, Times Square you could expect to see bright lights, pimps, hoes, drug dealers, Kung-Fu and porno movies (and all the other vices ubiquitous of for human civilized and uncivilizations since time immemorial…hehe). Now it’s Starbucks Barnes & Nobles the Gap banana republic Old Navy Dunkin Donuts Baskin Robbins..oh and ESPN Zone, NBA Store and Disney on Broadway (as if we didn’t get enough of it in the movie theatres.) If you went  to Downtown Brooklyn you could expect to see African Americans peddling their wares on the streets, sneaker shops, barber shops, jewelery stores, discount clothing stores… now more often than not, that flavor is Starbucks, Barnes & Nobles the Gap banana republic Old Navy, Dunkin Donuts Baskin Robbins…In fact the above can be said about almost any neighborhood in NY.  You don’t have to go to any particular area to experience anything because the franchises have bottled the experience and brought it to you.

It seems the same thing is underway in Japan currently and it’s a shame, but currently neighborhoods in Japan still retain a little characters. If you blindfolded me and took me to Akihabara I would know I wasn’t in Shinjuku or Shibuya or Harajuku. Though the architecture mostly looks the same…unavoidable I guess- cheap and simple is the order of the day and there’s little innovation or creativity done on the cheap in Japan (or NY for that matter)- the vibe is definitely different. Though these places are still thriving on the rapidly emptying tank of what they once were NY is running on the vapors of what I feel to be its glorious past.

The impact this shift in NY had on me was that I lost all pride in being a New Yorker. Frank Sinatra once said “If I can make it here I ‘d make it anywhere…” Well, NY has become just like anywhere. So the song’s lyrics would have to be changes to “If I can make it anywhere I can make here!” NY is much…softer now. Warm and fuzzy and tourist friendly and manages to retain it’s rep only because of Hollywood and HipHop. If you B.A.’d me and stuck me in a Mall in Santa Monica or even Las Vegas (though the slot machines might give Vegas away) I might have a hard time distinguishing it from NY. (For all of you non A-Team fans, B.A. (Mr. T) had to be drugged or knocked out before he got on a plane because he was afraid of flying)

I pity the fool that didn’t know that! (-:

Loco lite as a feather

…to be continued (more to come on impact of city and design)

Copyright © 2010 Loco in Yokohama / All Rights Reserved

Please know that this blog is my original writing and may not be reproduced in any way without the expressed written permission of the author (that's me!) Thanks!

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