City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

Gerard Koeppel

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 0306822849

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

You either love it or hate it, but nothing says New York like the street grid of Manhattan. Created in 1811 by a three-man commission featuring headstrong Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, the plan called for a dozen parallel avenues crossing at right angles with many dozens of parallel streets in an unbroken grid. Hills and valleys, streams and ponds, forests and swamps were invisible to the grid; so too were country villages, roads, farms, and estates and generations of property lines. All would disappear as the crosshatch fabric of the grid overspread the island: a heavy greatcoat on the land, the dense undergarment of the future city.

No other grid in Western civilization was so large and uniform as the one ordained in 1811. Not without reason. When the grid plan was announced, New York was just under two hundred years old, an overgrown town at the southern tip of Manhattan, a notorious jumble of streets laid at the whim of landowners. To bring order beyond the chaos—and good real estate to market—the street planning commission came up with a monolithic grid for the rest of the island. Mannahatta—the native "island of hills"—became a place of rectangles, in thousands of blocks on the flattened landscape, and many more thousands of right-angled buildings rising in vertical mimicry.

The Manhattan grid has been called "a disaster" of urban planning and "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization." However one feels about it, the most famous urban design of a living city defines its daily life. This is its story.


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information on adjoining lots and owners and a profile of the street, the better to make accurate assessments. In 1803, four dollars was a pretty good day rate, but it was just that: a rate that the city could control and budget, effectively bureaucratizing city surveying. 53 “the Committee appointed . . . ”: MCC, 3:273 (Apr 25, 1803). 53 “A Plan and Regulation . . . ”: New York Daily Advertiser, Jul 12, 1803. “Gorrek” and “Gorreck” were frequent phonetic misspellings of “Goerck.” 53 “extreme

46 Middle Road, 22, 25, 99, 100, 101, 106, 112, 122, 160 (see also Avenue, Fifth) Minthorne Street, 46 Morris Street, 46, 47 Mott Street, xvii Mulberry Street, xvii Murray Street, 11 Nassau Street, 222 North Street, xvii, 46, 85, 100, 101 (see also Houston Street) Orchard Street, 12 Pearl Street, 142, 143 Pine Street, xvii Romaine Street, 46 Sandy Hill Road, 33 South Street, 44, 46, 57, 60 Spring Street, 56 Spruce Street, xvii, 47 Steuben Street, 22, 99, 100, 101, 106, 122 Stone

them by now, remained mostly a hodgepodge of private creations, with bits of rectilinearity, the Bayard and DeLancey grids, established at the city’s northern fringes. The Common Council, meanwhile, caught some of the rectilinear bug, though not anywhere near where anyone would object. This very rare 1796 map (engraved by Peter Rushton Maverick, father of the 1803 Mangin-Goerck map engraver) depicts the effects of post-Revolutionary royalist land forfeitures: the DeLancey grid’s great square is

so.” Hunn lamented, “Where do we see two proprietors of any considerable property who have agreed either in the width or direction of their streets?” Hunn recounted how the Council had in 1804 adopted a plan to widen a narrow, crooked city street (Maiden Lane) but, after a landowner in 1805 rebuilt structures in the portion of the street to be widened, the Council decided its own plan was “unjust,” allowed the encroachment, and “virtually abolished [its own] laudable resolution.” Hunn was

exactitude of their professional work and trapped within it, Serrell was a man of many interests. He was captain of the engineer corps of the local state militia regiment and wrote a military engineers drill book in 1861, when such things mattered. He was active in the National Anti-Monopoly League, which took aim at railroad, telegraph, coal, and oil companies in the early 1880s, when these things mattered. Serrell knew his workplace. During his first year as a city surveyor, he redrew Goerck’s

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