Mash-up at Right Angles
The 1811 plan mandating an orthogonal street grid helped make Manhattan a paragon of urban form. Today we take rectilinear New York for granted, and love its vitality. An exhibition reveals both prescience and problems in the grid’s rich history.
The British Headquarters map of Manhattan (circa 1782) shows a convoluted shoreline and irregular topography. Networks of streams and marshes nearly render the island an archipelago. The map conjures a complex unspoiled landscape. Engravings from that time similarly depict vistas of unordered nature. Settlement in the late 18th century was still clustered in a disorganized little town at the island’s southern tip. In those engraved views of Manhattan’s hinterlands, only distant steeples and masts suggest the forces of culture and commerce that were already transforming the place.
Pressured by rapid growth, it wasn’t long before civic leaders acknowledged the need for a plan. The owners of large tracts north of the colonial-era settlement thwarted their first attempts, so they asked the state legislature to mandate the creation of a binding scheme. The result was the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. It established the orthogonal grid that helped make Manhattan a paragon of urban form. This plan and its results are the subject of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition on view at the Museum of the City of New York through April 15.
Today we are familiar and comfortable with rectilinear, paved-over Manhattan. And we are in love with the cultural and economic vitality it engenders. So the most emotionally affecting aspect of the exhibition is its exposure of the rawness—the violence, even—that accompanied the establishment of the grid.
Several of the Randel Farm Maps, made between 1818 and 1820 at a scale of 100 feet to the inch, are on view. These were drawn to lay the measured, coordinate geometry of the grid onto the island’s then-random patterns of topography, land ownership and settlement. They yield hallucinatory images: you look right through the familiar pattern of Manhattan blocks at the ghostly representation of long-obliterated farmsteads, hillocks and country roads.
Marvelous lithos and photos made as the grid was being extended northward during the 19th century show the results of shoving streets through rocky, undulating terrain. That took rough surgery, and it left scars. Houses remain stranded on bits of high ground. Huge outcroppings await dynamite in the gaps between newly constructed apartment blocks. Then there were the cycles of real estate frenzy, evoked by subdivision maps and breathless auction posters. Photos of sketchy, muddy neighborhoods dotted with forlornly isolated new buildings (and doomed squatters’ shacks) resonate disturbingly with images, from our recent speculative bust, of suburban developments abandoned and unfinished. But Manhattan’s grid has long since been built out, those scars covered over.
New York’s plan had its critics, and over time the grid was altered in many ways, typically for the purpose of increasing public space. Small parks, including Washington, Union and Thompkins Squares, were not originally envisioned but added later. Negative reactions to the grid’s rigidity partly led to the creation and rusticated design of Central Park. In turn, Central Park’s modeling of an aesthetic of the picturesque inspired further modifications, and additional naturalistic parks like Riverside and Morningside, on the Upper West Side and north of 155th Street where the terrain can be especially steep. The 1811 plan specified that streets on the East Side would have blocks an unmanageable 920 feet long; so Madison and Lexington Avenues were cut through to make shorter blocks and ease circulation. Broadway was allowed to continue its angled route north of where it was to have stopped at 23rd Street, resulting in asymmetrical open spaces including Times, Madison and Herald Squares and Columbus Circle. And in the 20th Century, desire for more open space led to modifications the wisdom of which is now debatable: the amalgamation of superblocks for towers-in-the-park housing projects; tradeoffs with developers allowing greater building height in exchange for setbacks and street-level plazas and for POPS, the “privately owned public spaces” like Zuccotti Park, whose murky legal and social role Occupy Wall Street has recently illuminated.
New York’s was hardly the first plan with an x/y grid. By 1811, several American cities including Savannah, Philadelphia, Albany and even little Hudson, New York, 120 miles upriver, had such layouts. The 1573 Law of the Indies had required that Spanish colonial settlements in the Americas comprise grids of streets extending from central squares, and precedents for that form date back to the Roman Empire. New York’s was also not the last. The majority of North American towns and cities established after the colonial era were built as grids where terrain permitted – and even in places, like San Francisco, where terrain was a challenge. And today, after decades of mass amnesia have allowed the dysfunctional dendritic form of cul-de-sac suburbia to dominate American placemaking, planners and citizens are coming again to value the connectivity, both functional and social, that comes from having lots of streets crossing close together.
What’s different about New York’s grid from those of other cities? Presciently or accidentally, the Commisioners’ Plan had qualities that allowed—perhaps even encouraged—Manhattan to become tremendously dense but still remain livable. For example, no land is given to mid-block alleys, and buildings front directly on the public way. The hierarchy in which cross streets at (more or less) regular intervals are wider than the standard not only accommodates frequent retail districts but also makes viable a public transit network that could not have been envisioned at the time. Unlike some cities’ grids— Savannah’s, with its rectilinear pattern frequently broken by public squares; Washington’s, with many diagonal avenues creating odd spaces for both small parks and monumental sculptures—New York’s streets and avenues are almost entirely uninterrupted. Today they form long corridors framed by tall buildings. You get seemingly endless perspectives down the avenues, and crosstown views that extend similarly, for example west across the magnificent Hudson River to the New Jersey Palisades. When a city is built low to the ground, long unpunctuated thoroughfares can feel empty and disconnected; think of Salt Lake City, or Chicago’s vast bungalow neighborhoods. But population growth and the elevator hurtled New York’s grid up into three dimensions. New York exists at a much larger scale than most cities. Intimate outdoor rooms resulting from truncated vistas may not quite be appropriate here, after all—but sensations of exhilarating possibility induced by hugeness certainly are. New York is a hive of polity, creativity and wealth as a result of many factors. The grid itself is not alone responsible, but the grid supports its greatness.
This is a rich and rewarding exhibition, and its apparently strong attendance is a heartening sign of the growing general concern for urban design. After viewing it, you might want to take a break to let your mind shift orientation from past to future before going upstairs. There, eight winning projects from a competition (sponsored by the Architectural League of New York, Architizer and the museum) are on display in a companion show called “The Unfinished Grid, Speculations for Manhattan.” These concepts are edgy and provocative, variously doable and improbable, but engagingly presented. One reads like a fragment from a novel, about an unhappy couple’s visit to a dying relative in a miles-high structure at the northern edge of Central Park. One proposes erecting another grid, a single connected structure 700 feet above street level, interlinking skyscrapers and adding new buildings “by hanging.” One lays a virtual grid over the real city and asks citizens to use their smartphones to express ideas for urban interventions to architects who are presumably standing by to design and (virtually) put them in place.
It is rare to have the opportunity to examine these kinds of theoretical solutions while their real-world context is so freshly and clearly in mind. This makes them easier to comprehend—and to critique as well as be dazzled by. To take them in total seriousness, you have to agree with their starting assumptions that Manhattan as a built environment is riddled with voids, or offers only limited possibilities, or fails to meet the demands upon it, and so on. The city’s built form is hardly perfect now, and it will always be challenged to evolve. But you come away from “The Greatest Grid” with a powerful sense of its intelligence and resilience.