“The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011”
Museum of the City of New York, 220 Fifth Ave. • Through July 15
Strange things happen to people who live too long in New York City. We stop using compass directions and refer instead to “uptown” and “downtown.” Our first thought on entering an attractive apartment is how high the rent is. Even more ubiquitous is our disdain for street addresses, preferring the much more elegant “27th and Sixth,” “115th and First.” Address in four syllables or less — what could be more convenient?
This iconic aspect of Manhattan’s city plan is on display in “The Greatest Grid,” an exhibition that is equal parts backstory and tribute, now showing at the Museum of the City of New York. Laid out in one multi-cubicled room, designed to mimic the intersection of streets and avenues, the city plan’s history elucidates its creation as it elevates the city commissioners who invented it to the level of deities.
In 1807, the City Council of New York appointed a three-man commission, consisting of Gouverneur Morris, John Rutherfurd, and Simeon De Witt, to establish a comprehensive street plan for the city, giving them unprecedented authority and access to the city’s land. In 1811, they presented their plan, which, with a few modifications, is the Manhattan we now know.
History nerds will delight in the abundance of eye candy. A rich selection of maps tracks the transformation of the island from fallow land to orderly squares. When the grid was imposed, the commission’s surveyor, John Randel, painstakingly mapped all the future blocks on top of existing properties. (These individual maps have been digitally stitched together for the exhibition, and can be perused on several monitors.) Alongside, we see a few stunning depictions of street views and many photographs of neighborhoods in various stages of development. Some, like a neat row of identical brownstones hiding behind a pit of dirt, make you laugh with their incongruity.
Some of the pride is justified. The numbering of Mahnattan’s streets and avenues make it “unique among U.S. cities,” we learn, and the sheer size of the grid — which was initially planned only up to 155th Street but now extends, in some fashion, to the tip of the island — makes it unique in the world.
New York’s blocks are smaller than those in many other grid cities, which is a boon to street life, but can be a detriment to home life. In Barcelona, much of the downtown is also centered on a grid, but planners took pains to create large blocks, some of which measure 400 by 500 feet, so that every block can have an interior courtyard. The commissioners’ plan, in contrast, did not include backstreets or alleys, so that garbage collection and socializing both took place in the open.
The grid almost single- handedly created the real estate market. “Strait-sided [sic] & right-angled houses are the most cheap to build,” the commissioners declared. (No surprise here that the show is sponsored by several real estate groups, including Silverstein Properties, the Vornado Realty Trust and the Durst Organization.) Indeed, the city’s intent, in 1807, to extend a grid northward onto undeveloped land, essentially rezoning a swath of adjacent countryside several times larger than the presently settled land, is praised as an act of “brazen ambition” in the show’s text; in his introduction to the accompanying book, Mayor Michael Bloomberg calls it “chutzpah.”
We get tantalizing glimpses of the many issues of public policy and eminent domain that accompanied such an ambitious plan. Much of the land north of Greenwich Village, then an outlying village to the city of New York, was municipally owned (since a 1796 act granted to the city all land not in private hands). However, there was significant settlement in those areas, shown clearly on maps from that time. When the city opened streets, the effect on surrounding property was assessed and the owners compensated — or charged — for the change.
Putting down streets meant leveling the island, which differed dramatically between the relatively flat East side and the craggy West. (Clement Clarke Moore, a contemporary of the commissioners, said, “These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome.”) An excellent map from the late 19th century stacks cross-sections of Manhattan’s elevations to create a comparative topography of the entire island.
While the city built the streets, it left adjacent lots in the hands of their owners, to fill in or level.
The original grid made no room for parks, but the city later subsidized the creation of smaller parks such as Gramercy Park and Madison Square Park (even before the creation of Central Park), reasoning that the increase in value of the surrounding property would result in greater property tax revenues returning to the city.
The exhibition raises more questions than it answers. While we see very detailed results of the commissioners’ plan, there is no information in the historic record on why those three men were chosen to create the plan, or how they were chosen, or even how they worked together. In fact, much of the city’s human aspect is stripped away, or only discussed in the aggregate language of populations or neighborhoods.
Ultimately, the grid is hard to criticize: it’s proven remarkably flexible over the years, adapting to changing uses as individual neighborhoods grow, decline and regenerate. It gives a semblance of order to the unpredictability of the city; it’s what we all love (and love to know) about Manhattan. But before city life could adapt to the grid, the grid had to impose itself on an already existing landscape, moving (or destroying) houses and settlements that stood in its way. Much of this history has been forgotten as the grid has become taken for granted as part of our built environment. As a forecast of future urban policy, it is perhaps worth remembering.