In 1861, another novel idea from Philadelphia – called, appropriately, the decimal system – brought Manhattan’s cross-street addresses to their present intuitive state. Each block of a street between two major avenues was assigned a set of 100 numbers.
The addresses on the block between Fifth and Sixth Avenues, for example, took the numbers 1 through 99; between Sixth and Seventh Avenues, 100-199; and so on.
As most of Manhattan’s streets became more standardized, there was much rejoicing among census takers, mail carriers and tax collectors, as well as the publishers of city directories, the precursor to phone books, said Reuben Rose-Redwood, an associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria who has studied this history.
“City directories were more profitable with better information,” Dr. Rose-Redwood said. “In city after city, these directory publishers would come in and basically lobby the City Council to adopt a numbering system.”
The avenues, however, would not be similarly tamed.
Numbering had already started on the avenues that would run the island’s length, but there was no consistency. Building numbers began at different cross streets; odd numbers appeared on the west side of some avenues and on the east side of others.
Avenue address relief nearly came in 1940, after the city’s postmaster suggested a three-part format familiar to residents of Queens: the cross street immediately to the south, then a hyphen, then a building number. For example, 74-01 Amsterdam Avenue would be the first lot on the west side of Amsterdam Avenue north of West 74th Street.
Acclaim for the proposal came from all spheres of influence, except for one: The Fifth Avenue Association. The plan would cause “substantial hardship” for the thoroughfare’s wealthy residents and business interests, an important tax base. “Business records, stationery, machines and products advertised by the street number of their Fifth Avenue makers would have to be changed at great expense,” a representative of the group lamented. The proposal was quietly dropped.
Not all address numbers are set in stone, though, as borough presidents have the power to renumber buildings. In the 1980s, with the blessing of future mayor David Dinkins, so-called “vanity” addresses became popular among Manhattan developers.
The banal 111 East 45th Street, 164 West 66th Street and 470 Eighth Avenue, to cite three such…