Lesson 6: Memorizing streets of a city
Today’s lesson is immensely practical for two reasons.
First of all… as mentioned before, “getting around” is one of the most important skills to have. And if you can learn the skill of navigating your own city (or ANY city) quickly and easily, you’ve made your life much easier.
Second, knowledge of a city is useful for learning more knowledge. Because the more places you are familiar with, the faster you’ll be able to create memory palaces.
So let’s dive in. As usual, our discussion will revolve around two basic accelerated learning principles: exclusivity and mnemonics.
Landmarks and territories
Have you lived in or near a particular city most of your life?
If so, how well do you know that city? Think about learning new landmarks. If I tell you about a museum or restaurant you’ve never been to, and if I give you the directions or tell you what intersection it’s on, do you have a good concept of where that would be?
These questions are serving a specific purpose. Basically, I’m asking if you have a map in your head. And actually the answer doesn’t actually depend on simply on “how long” you’ve lived in a city. Consider, for example, that some tourists arriving in Manhattan for a weekend actually know the general layout of the city better than people who have lived in the city their entire lives!
Why is that? It’s because those tourists have a very short time to visit some large landmarks, probably spread throughout midtown and along Central Park. Because of this exclusivity, if you tell them about a restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, they’ll be able to pinpoint it between two other major landmarks that they’ve visited. So they’re building on their mental map of the city, and they haven’t even spent more than a few hours there.
At the same time, I have friends who have lived in my own city for years, or even their entire lives, still without being able to get around without the aid of GPS.
Although I’m very grateful for GPS, I still believe in the enriching knowledge of maps. So let’s turn ourselves into tourists for a few minutes. Let’s talk about exclusive landmarks.
We’ll go on the theme of New York City, just because it’s one of the best-known cities in the world. The heart of NYC is Manhattan, and most of the popular attractions are in Midtown Manhattan, between Houston (to the south) and Central Park (to the north).
In fact, if you only remember what I just now told you… you now know the general layout of New York City!
Thinking of Midtown as our main territory, you have a general idea of how the city is laid out. So let’s get to know this region a little bit. Midtown Manhattan is an enormous place, with hundreds of incredible landmarks. How shall we keep them all straight?
This is where we can actually get the edge on tourists. Sure, tourists have their landmarks, but one thing they don’t have is routine. The have to scramble to get from one landmark to another.
So although a tourist’s advantage is that they visit all the major landmarks of the city, the fact is that a resident has a very distinct advantage: The vantage point of a “route”. If a family who lives in East Village likes to spend time in Central Park, they probably follow a particular set of streets to get to and from there. Along that route, they see several major landmarks.
In our own project today, we’ll be even more systematic. Let’s choose a route that gives us most of the biggest landmarks in Midtown Manhattan. That way we’ll have not only general landmarks, but also a good feel for how to get from one landmark to the next, which puts everything in a meaningful context.
Our “route” will be Broadway.
Broadway is an extremely significant street in Manhattan, probably the most important. It runs through the middle of downtown from north to south, crossing several other avenues diagonally. And every time it hits another avenue, it encounters a very prominent landmark.
For example, when it hits Park Avenue (toward the south of Midtown), we have Union Square. This is the home to one of the most important train stations in the city. Imagine it as a “parking lot” where trains get together, and you should be able to associate “Park Avenue” with “Union Square”.
Now we’ll follow Broadway north for a while, and the next avenue that it intersects with is 5th Avenue. When this happens, their diagonal intersection forms the famous Flatiron Building, which is shaped like a sharply pointed triangle. Imagine it as a hot iron that’s kind of “mad” and wants to burn something. The “mad” syllable will help you remember that the flatiron building is at Madison Square.
The mad iron looks like it’s trying to chase us as we run further north. The next major event is 6th Avenue, where we encounter the famous 34th Street Macy’s on our left and the Empire State Building to the right. There are a lot of skyscrapers in midtown, but the Empire State Building is the tallest and most famous building around, so it’s a very handy landmark.
Continuing further north, as Broadway slowly approaches and gradually intersects 7th Avenue, we come to one of the busiest intersections in the world: Times Square. This enormous, brightly lighted territory of mayhem continues for about 5 or 8 blocks (depending on where you draw the boundaries).
Finally, the end of our journey is Columbus Circle, which sits at the southeast corner of Central Park. This is the intersection of Broadway and 8th Avenue.
Did you remember all of that? …Of course not.
We need to enhance our imagery a bit. In fact, it would be best if we could make it so that we don’t just remember the primary landmarks; we want to make it easy to remember ANY new landmark in context.
So let’s try to make our route, as well as the areas between our landmarks, really memorable.
We’re going to turn around at Columbus Circle and proceed south, all the way back down through midtown. But this time, this isn’t just a city. It’s the side of a mountain that we’ll be climbing down. And Broadway isn’t just a street. Let’s imagine that it’s a large bridge, made out of rough wood, with fancy but splintery railings on the sides.
We’re starting at the top of the mountain, which is an active volcano. A pinnacle with a statue of Christopher Columbus on top is sticking out of a pool of bubbling lava.
We don’t like the smell of the smoke from the lava, so we’ll continue along the bridge (Broadway) to go further south. The lava converts to stone at a certain point. Here, a bunch of brightly colored advertisements and signs are half-burned by the lava on one side but firmly planted in the stone. This is Times Square.
We’ll continue the bridge over the rocky territory until we’re far enough from the lava that we encounter snow. There’s a point at which the ground below us is all snowy to the south but all rocky to the north. To celebrate the snow, there are a couple of sentimental landmarks: The Macy’s from Miracle on 34th Street (to the west), and the Empire State Building (to the east).
At this point, try really to visualize everything around you. You’re standing on a wooden bridge, facing south. Behind you there’s stone, lava, and bright signs that represent Times Square. To your right is Macy’s, to your left is the Empire State Building, and below the bridge in front of you is a landscape of snow.
Let’s cross the bridge over the snow until we hit an army of trees, spearheaded by a giant hot iron. We’re looking the Flatiron Building right in the face, and below us (still in the snow) is Madison Square. Apparently the triangular Flatiron Building has ambitions to break out of the forest and melt the snow.
Let’s continue past the flatiron building and into the trees. We’re so far down the mountain that it’s no longer hot (from the lava) or cold (with the snow). Instead, we’re just walking through a calm, dark forest.
When we reach the end of the woods, we see a grassy plain stretching out in front of us. The transition between the forest and the grass is Union Square, where Park Avenue meets broadway. Imagine trains parked between the woods and the grass.
Now I encourage you to go back and forth in your imagination, walking along Broadway north and south, and picturing all the landmarks. If you visualize this strongly enough, you’ll not only be able to remember all of these important places. You’ll also be able to memorize the general location of ANYTHING in Midtown Manhattan, simply by imagining it in the appropriate landscape (lava, rock, snow, forest, or grass).
Now, memorize downtown Manhattan
Midtown Manhattan wasn’t too hard. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, downtown Manhattan (further south) is more or less a labyrinth of streets. There are no street numbers, and the layout of the blocks is irregular, with streets crossing each other at all kinds of angles.
Fortunately, we can still segregate this elusive area into a few major regions, with Broadway still serving as our main avenue from north to south, plus a few major east-west streets segregating different substrates. Check out the image below. Broadway is still a long, tall, wooden bridge. Imagine the other north-south avenue, Bowery, as a garden path overshadowed by a trellis of blooming purple flowers hanging down.
In particular, I want you to imagine walking along Broadway in the the dark-blue area that you see in the middle of the map. Our substrate here is water. We’ve continued so far down our imaginary island that we’re now in the ocean. So you’re walking along the Broadway “bridge” over the ocean. If you look out to the east, you see a floating path on the water with a trellis and flowers. That’s bowery.
It’s important to start out by associating Broadway and Bowery with the ocean, even though they obviously don’t just exist in this watery region. We’re creating an “anchor” region in the middle. Soon we’ll base everything else that we learn on this, expanding our knowledge to the north and south.
So now we’ll walk north along the Broadway bridge until we reach the beach. The substrate here is sand, of course, but it’s interesting how the sand is divided from the ocean: A small ditch, or “canal”, has been dug along the beach so that the tide doesn’t rise further than it should. This creates a clear division between the sand and the water. The street is Canal Street.
Now we’ll turn back around and cross the ocean, going south until we reach ice. As soon as we reach the ice, we have to be careful, because there are some very sharp icicles and shards of ice partly blocking our path. These sharp and angular pieces of ice make the shape “V Z”, which is the name of the street that divides water from ice: Vesey Street.
OK, so now we’ve been introduced to our landmark avenues. But now we’re going to enhance our mnemonics even further. Imagine that on the west side of Broadway, it’s a dark and stormy night. Meanwhile, on the east side, it’s a clear, bright sunny day. Now walk back and forth in your imagination once or twice, running into Canal Street and then turning back around and running into Vesey Street. When you’re going north toward Canal Street, the rain is to your left (west), and when you’re going south toward Vesey Street, the blazing sun is to your left (east), shining down on Bowery.
Now we’re going to give names to the regions that we’ve just outlined. Let’s start with the beach, the area between Houston and Canal Street.
West of Broadway, imagine that there’s a man in a Santa suit holding a paintbrush and wandering around in the rain. His boots are getting covered with wet sand, and occasionally he stoops down to try to paint in the sand, but it’s not really working. Occasionally he tries to laugh “ho-ho-ho”, but he’s a very skinny Santa and doesn’t have much energy, plus the “S” in “sand” always gets mixed up with his nervous attempt at merriment. His laugh ends up sounding like “so-ho-ho”.
“SoHo” is a neighborhood known for being somewhat hip and the home of many artists. If you associate it with the starving Santa painting in the sand and rain, you’ll remember that it’s the region south of Houston but north of Canal Street, stretching west of Broadway.
Now let’s go to the east side of Broadway. After crossing under the bridge to get away from the SoHo Santa, suddenly we find a beautiful sunny area of beach. But we have to walk carefully, because there are big, flat pizzas baking in the sand. There’s also a party going on with people dancing around the pizzas, and colored lights have been strung between palm trees… even though it’s not Christmas. We’re in the neighborhood of “Little Italy”, which is in the sand between Broadway and Bowery.
So only one question remains: What’s on the other side of the flowery Bowery?
Tiptoeing around the pizzas, you sneak up to Bowery and look through the trellis… only to see an enormous desert on the other side, being consumed by a raging fire. It’s odd to think that sand would be on fire, but that’s what’s going on east of Bowery. As the fire continues to consume the sand, the ground level slowly sinks lower and lower, creating a huge valley of burning sand. This area is called Lower East Side, and it’s actually quite large, about the size of SoHo and Little Italy combined.
Enough of the beach. Let’s go back to the ocean. You sneak back through the Little Italy party and get back onto Broadway, waving goodbye to Santa who’s now sitting down in the wet sand on the other side. Turning south, you walk over Canal Street and out to the big blue sea.
Here you look to the west and see a storm at sea, caused by the god Poseidon. Poseidon is laughing and waving around his trident. When he sees you, he suddenly stops laughing, holds his left hand out face-up in front of him, stretches his arm out toward you, and then beckons for you to come. But he’s smiling sinisterly while he beckons, holding his sharp trident in his right hand as if he wants to kill you as soon as you come into the water.
The stormy area of sea is called “TriBeCa”, which sounds like a combination of the words “trident” and “beckon”. Of course, when Poseidon beckons you to enter the storm, you shudder and turn the other way.
When you look to the east, you see a calm sea under a warm sun. A minute ago you were frightened of the sea, because TriBeCa looked very dangerous. But on the east side of Broadway, there’s nothing scary at all; just a Chinese ship and another ship full of judges in big, white wigs. Everyone in both ships seems to be having a great time, and they’re all yelling “sea! sea! sea!” as if they love being at sea.
Let’s call this region “C. C. C.”, because of how happy we are about the sea. Here between Broadway and Bowery we have two neighborhoods: Chinatown (home of many Chinese people) and the Civic Center (where City Hall is located). So if you remember “C. C. C.”, and remember the Chinese ship and the judges’ ship, you’ll remember that right at the center of downtown, our two neighborhoods are Chinatown and the Civic Center.
Stop for a minute. Make sure you can remember the streets that border this central region. We have Broadway on the west, Canal Street on the north, Bowery on the east, and Vesey Street on the south.
Now let’s jump into the ocean, swim east between the two ships, and climb onto Bowery. What do we see if we look east? A sad sight: Two distant bridges, standing tall above the ocean to the east, are going down in flames. Pieces of the bridges are falling into the ocean, creating a surface of burning debris floating in the water.
The region east of Bowery is called “Two Bridges”. This is the neighborhood where Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn Bridge join Manhattan.
Next we want to go further south, to the icy region, but there’s a problem. We would proceed south on Bowery, but somehow we can’t. Bowery stops before we can get to the ice. A girl named “Ann”, who thinks that purple flowers are disgusting, has chopped up Bowery on the south end, so we’re stuck and can’t go south without jumping off and swimming. Meanwhile she’s standing on the glacier far away from us to the south, laughing at us and stroking her axe.
Ann Street is another name for Vesey Street. It’s called Vesey Street to the west, at Broadway, but over to the east it’s called Ann Street. So if you imagine the entire edge of the glacier, dividing the water from the ice, imagine VZ to the west but Ann to the east.
So we swim back to Broadway and cross Vesey into the icy region. We stop and look around, finding that once again we have a dark and stormy night to the west but a bright, sunny day to the east.
On the west side, the rain is pouring down on the World Trade Center. There are waterfalls running into two large, dark, square holes where the Twin Towers used to stand before 9/11. But just north of those holes, at the corner of Vesey and Broadway, standing high above the water and ice, the One World Trade Center tower displays itself as the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere.
On the east side of broadway, there’s no rain, just sun shining off the ice. There, men in suits are skating around, passing bags of money and share certificates to one another. This region is the financial district. Some of the more daring skaters are trying to balance on a stone wall made of ice blocks; this ice wall is Wall Street.
So there you go. That’s downtown Manhattan!
After reviewing this lesson and strengthening everything in your imagination, try getting out a blank piece of paper and a pencil to see if you can draw and label the entire thing.
We didn’t learn all the streets and landmarks, but that’s OK. You can easily do that on your own, now that you have all the general areas down.
For example, let’s say you find a restaurant that you really like in TriBeCa. All you have to remember is that it’s in the water, and imagine the restaurant under pouring rain (maybe even with Poseidon stabbing his trident into the restaurant logo), and bingo, you’ll remember that the restaurant is south of Canal Street, north of Vesey Street, and west of Broadway.
An advanced challenge is to memorize the names of ALL the streets of downtown Manhattan. Only do this after you are very familiar with the general regions. The trick is simply to associate the names of the streets with their appropriate substrates (for east-west streets) or weathers (for north-south streets).
If you do this, you’ll find it almost impossible to get lost in downtown Manhattan. Every time you come across a street, you’ll know which neighborhood you’re in and which way to go to get to the appropriate main avenue. (This is entirely possible, and I did it myself for the streets of downtown Buenos Aires in just 1.5 hours during my first trip to Argentina. I documented the process in a video, which you can find at MasterOfMemory.com/BAstreets.)
Bonus section: More numbers
Our new digit-sound today is for the number 7. Notice how sharp the top-right edge of this number is, and imagine that the number is knocking loudly on a door. The digit 7 represents the “K” sound.
Here are our new numbers. There are quite a few of them, so make sure to visualize them strongly in order to associate them with very physical imaginary objects.
27: “knick/knack” (a snow globe; use a little imagination…)
72: “cone” (ice cream cone)
74: “gear” (cog)
75: “quill” (quill pen)
76: “cash” (paper money)
Here’s a quiz with the numbers from lessons 3, 5, and 6 (lessons 1, 2, and 4 get a break today):
Advanced mnemonists, test yourself: Below are 20 randomly generated years from history, from AD 17 to AD 1714. See if you can store all 20 years in a personal temporary memory palace, such as the room you’re in right now. You’ll turn each year into two number objects.
In the next lesson, we’ll move on to one of the most impressive memory feats that exist: Creating a mental index of an entire book.
In the mean time, check out more of our articles on Memorization tactics.