This seemingly innocent bit in the New York Times today set me off on a strange journey. It’s about the (long-overdue, IMO) installation of some compass rose directional signs on the sidewalk outside of subway stations in New York, to help people orient themselves.

I thought this was pretty much unambiguously a good idea and didn’t think much more about it.  But in a related piece on the CityRom Blog, the question is posed, How Do You Find Your Way in the Big City? I started looking through the responses while pondering mine.

It turns out I use a variety of methods, depending on where I am and how familiar I am with that area and what clues are or are not available. I know some of the tricks, I have a decent spatial memory, and I know some landmarks. But then I remembered my stand-by trick for navigating lower Manhattan – find the World Trade Centers, they’re pretty much at the southwest end of everything, and work out your position and heading from there. Turns out I was not alone.

Before 9/11, one of the best ways to orient myself when exiting a subway station in the Village was to look for the World Trade Center towers, because I’d know that way was south. Day or night, they were the perfect compass, and that’s one of the things I miss about them.

It’s a great idea. I was born and raised in Manhattan and am usually diaoriented when I leave a subway. I look for famous skyscrapers for direction. Sadly, the Trade Centers are not there for help in lower Manhattan.

Apart from that, there were always the Trade Center towers to mark the trail…like hills in the distance.

And most eloquently,

October 17th, 2007
9:00 am

I landed into a hot-summer-day-New-York-City in June 1998, completely disoriented. My French accent and male pride did not help me overcome the shame of asking around for directions. Popping out of the subway quickly became a game of “I spy”, with my little eye circling in search for the two friendly towers. The world Trade Center eternally pointed to the South and was visible from everywhere downtown and up to at least 46 street. This regular twisting of the neck did the trick.
Now my illusions are gone and eternity exists only in destruction. Powerful landmarks have been replaced by ubiquitous devices. I don’t look up to the skies but down to my iPhone screen and google maps. As long as I have my neck bowed to the ground, like a mourner of times gone-by, I sticker showing North is very welcome to cross paths with my little eye.

— Posted by Regis Zaleman

All these New Yorkers commenting on the blog about their private navigation rituals and all the thoughts of the World Trade Centers on this fall day with a perfect empty blue sky made me think of the odd habit of Bostonians to navigate by landmarks that no longer exist. While New Yorkers talk wistfully of the WTC as a way to find your way around, Bostonians refer to renamed, rebuilt, and just plain vanished landmarks in the present tense.

Mostly the obsolescence of the landmark correlates with the age of the person using it, but these directions are inherited and some people continue to refer to places like Scollay Square and the Necco Wafer Factory. Several people I know refer to a Whole Foods Markets as “Bread & Circus” which they were called before being taken over years ago. Some refer to new Whole Foods stores as B&C even though they were built after the acquisition. I pity the newcomers and tourists who get directions from these urban historians.

In fact, just now I got an instant message asking “where are you?” to which I had to reply “at the place that used to be Ras Cafe” because I could not recall the current name of the place providing my blogging wifi signal for the evening.  And a really really good hummus plate, too.  For the record, it’s Andala Coffee House.

I call this conflation of past and present geography navistalgia – a portmanteau of navigation and nostalgia. The Boston version I described is more or less a caricature of Bostonian provincialism, but every time I look south in lower Manhattan, I’m finding my way by the empty spaces in the sky and experiencing bittersweet navistalgia.