When I first saw the Commissioners’ Map of 1811 many years ago while researching Manhattan history, my reaction was shock and disbelief. This was no charming antiquarian depiction of Old New York. It was a bold plan for the city’s growth—a tight, rectilinear network of streets overriding natural terrain and private property, extending far beyond the small early settlement at the foot of the island into its wilder open reaches. It seemed ruthless and unreal, visionary or hallucinatory. Farms, homes, hills, valleys, woods and streams had disappeared under a relentless geometric overlay of right-angled streets: the famous Manhattan grid.
When I saw the map again in the current exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” I still found it an unsettling combination of the visionary and the pragmatic. This amazing document, the centerpiece of a show celebrating its 200th anniversary, is responsible for the Manhattan street system and a city unlike any other in the world.
The exhibition opened quietly last December and has been so popular (who knew? a lot of old maps and photographs?) that its original April closing has been extended through July 15. Sponsored by the Office of the Borough President of Manhattan in collaboration with the museum, the New York Public Library and the Architectural League of New York, the show follows Manhattan’s radical transformation through original documents from city archives and historical collections, beautifully researched and organized by its curator, Hilary Ballon, university professor of urban studies and architecture at New York University, and expertly installed by Wendy Evans Joseph. The excellent book-length catalog, edited by Prof. Ballon, is a surprising historical page-turner. A coda of eight proposals selected from a competition held by the Architectural League suggests where the grid could go from here.
It’s a fair guess that New Yorkers want it to stay exactly the way it is. In a video at the entrance, people chosen at random state their home spot on the grid, confident that in their comfortable Cartesian world no one has to ask “Where?”
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011
Museum of the City of New York
Through July 15
The miracle is that the plan actually got built. An explosion of wealth and population in early 19th-century New York prompted the Common (later City) Council to ask the State Legislature to establish a commission to “develop and choose a master plan to channel and direct” the city’s future expansion. Three commissioners, Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt and John Henderson, were appointed in 1807 with a mandate to complete the work in four years. The measuring and mapping was done by the commission’s secretary and surveyor general, John Randel Jr., and the finished product was delivered slightly ahead of schedule in 1811.
The plan was accepted and implemented immediately as a massive public-works project employing armies of workers over the next 60 years. It was financed by assessments on adjoining property owners for the “improvements” of paved streets and utilities, a practice that met with violent resistance but proved profitable in the end. An early version of eminent domain allowed the city to take the land, reimbursing the owner at market rates, a cost made up for by assessments and sales.
The Commissioners’ Plan, nearly nine feet long, is flanked by their seals and by impressive portraits of the three substantial, serious men who held the future of New York in their hands. A sampling of the 93 large “Farm Maps” Randel made later, at a scale of 100 feet to 1 inch, records the topography and property boundaries underlying the grid. His handwritten field notes show street by street calculations in “chain lengths,” a painstaking process that used metal chains and heavy brass compasses, theodolytes and geodesic transits to reconcile the difference between true north and magnetic north readings. Most of Manhattan was measured in that way, an inconceivable feat in the age of Google.
No deviations from the grid were considered necessary. It ended at a nonexistent and hypothetical 155th Street, with everything neatly numbered; avenue names came later. The surrounding rivers and a few token spaces were expected to satisfy health and recreational needs. The commissioners were openly dismissive of ceremonial boulevards leading to monumental institutions like those being constructed in Washington according to Pierre l’Enfant’s plan. Because no one was able to anticipate the automobile or the city’s enormous future growth, the 1811 plan inevitably led to gridlock, New York’s notorious addition to the English language.
The grid was denounced for its obliteration of the natural landscape and fought as a taking of private land; later criticism focused on the lack of open space and the way the division into standard lots turned the island into negotiable real estate. Surveyors were driven off as trespassers; temporary street markers were removed until stone posts replaced them. One remaining stone column stands unmoored in the show. The grid’s unyielding regularity left an estimated 39% of existing houses in the middle of a proposed street. Many were demolished and about 900 buildings were moved. Clement Moore, whose large holdings were in what is now called Chelsea, denounced city officials as “men who would level the seven hills of Rome.”
A standard 200-foot block-front was established for the avenues, with narrower side streets and wider cross streets at irregular intervals. The blocks were divided into 20- and 25-foot house lots with a 100-foot depth, a module that could be assembled for a variety of configurations. Vacant land was sold at public auction, and speculation, fraud and corruption flourished as buying and selling lots became the biggest game in town. In the 1830s, John Jacob Astor transferred his fortune in beaver pelts and international trade into real estate, to become New York’s largest landholder and richest man.
It must have been hideous to live through. Workers dug and blasted earth and rock to reduce everything to street grade, leaving mounds of rubble behind. The process is recorded in surreal detail in photographs from the museum’s collection. There are views of new streets that seem to have been dropped from outer space. The Dakota, completed in 1884, stands in an uptown wilderness of streets to nowhere.
So what did we get besides gridlock? New York is a strange city of serendipitous side effects, where what seems wrong often turns out to be right. The first lesson of the grid is that scale is everything. The plan was scaled to 19th-century life and dimensions; it predated the automobile, which it accommodates badly. But what it gave us, with its short, 200-foot block lengths and small, 20- to 25-foot lot sizes, its direct and easy navigability, is a walkable, personal city at human scale, where every street is an endlessly varied and inviting series of visual experiences, of constantly changing shopfronts, restaurants and buildings of infinite styles and uses. When that scale and mix is threatened, we know it; if a revitalized, increasingly affluent area has an influx of look-alike chains demanding increased street frontage, we will use zoning restrictions to maintain scale and avoid what Manhattanites perceive as the mall-death of boring redundancy. Newness, novelty and the next thing are all encouraged by small-scale opportunities. This doesn’t happen in big boxes. Or parking lots.
When land is scarce and expensive you build close and high, and Manhattan is an island of solid street walls and shoulder-to-shoulder skyscrapers. The streets that border them are public social space; they are full of life and activity and the promise of whatever lies around the corner. Urbanist Holly Whyte found that people instinctively gathered on the most crowded parts of sidewalks, bypassing plazas. The worst idea that architects and planners ever had (what were they thinking?) was the superblock; we are still trying to knit the streets of the grid back together. Some are being restored and reconnected in the rebuilt, sterile superblock of the World Trade Center site.
Because the grid is a total democratization of space, with no area designated as more important than any other, every neighborhood creates its own distinct identity, with the capability of reinventing itself, like people, and moving on. That flexibility is unique to the grid. It has also accommodated major incursions and amenities like Central Park. Twice yearly, an accident of solstice, orientation and geometry sends golden shafts of setting sun straight through the grid from river to river, west to east, an occasion that would be celebrated by people less in a hurry.
The architect Rem Koolhaas has defined New York as a “culture of congestion,” and it is that close interaction of people and ideas that has produced one of the city’s greatest strengths—call it a culture of creativity. There is much to celebrate about the grid.
Ms. Huxtable is the Journal’s architecture critic.
A version of this article appeared March 28, 2012, on page D7 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Crosshatching a Miracle.