The Greatness of the Grid: A museum exhibit celebrates the bicentennial of Manhattan’s innovative street plan
If the intelligence of a city can arise from the circuitry of its streets, then the street grid made a genius out of New York. In 1811, three state commissioners laid down Manhattan’s rectangular blocks. From First Street to 155th Street south to north and First Avenue to Twelfth Avenue east to west, their new grid obliterated the old lanes and farmhouses dotting the Manhattan countryside north of Houston Street, with few exceptions. Yet in trading away its past, the city built its future. The grid became the urban version of a super computer, a chipset to super-charge the city’s growth.
The bicentennial of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 devising the grid might have gone unnoticed if not for Hilary Ballon, a professor of urban studies and architecture at New York University. The exhibition she has organized at the Museum of the City of New York, “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011,” running through July 15, gives the Commissioners’ Plan its due. “The street grid is a defining element of Manhattan, the city’s first great civic enterprise, and a vision of brazen ambition,” Ballon writes in her exhibition catalogue. “It is also a milestone in the history of city planning and sets a standard to think just as boldly about New York’s future.”
From a city founded at the southern tip of Manhattan, New York saw its urban population press steadily northward. Between 1790 to 1810, the city’s population tripled to nearly 100,000. Yet the streets that moved up with the rising tide were a patchwork of old roads and subdivided estates. In 1807, a state commission attempted to get out in front of the northward march. Three commissioners—Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherfurd, wealthy landowners and political grandees in the metropolitan area; and Simeon De Witt, an accomplished surveyor from Albany—undertook an exhaustive multi-year survey of the island and set about redrawing New York into the city we know today. Little is known about their deliberations. Morris kept a diary that recorded the weather, his itinerary, and states of health, but little else. Given the magnitude of the undertaking, his understatement can seem farcical. Consider his entry of Thursday, March 28, 1811: “Raw damp and NEast Wind. Go to town on Business of the Comm[ission] to lay out Manhattan Island—Dine with Mr. Rutherford and execute the Maps—Much indisposed [from gout].”
Rectangular street grids have been around for millennia; the pragmatic Romans used them to lay out their colonies. In New York, a 1796 grid called the Goerck Plan had already been proposed for the sale of what was known as the Common Lands, a large parcel of real estate in the center of Manhattan Island that the city owned. Yet no grid had ever been drawn up on the grand scale that the commission proposed in 1811—running north through the Manhattan farmland and countryside and even overlaying two villages, Manhattanville and Haerleem, miles from the existing city.
Unlike Pierre Charles L’Enfant, whose 1791 plan for Washington, D.C., created grand diagonal boulevards and optimized sight lines, the New York commission had little interest in charm or pageantry. The commissioners described how they had deliberated about “Whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or weather they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject, they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men and that strait-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.”