The Manhattan Street Grid: Still Controversial on its Bicentennial

03/22/2011 12:22 PM |

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  • OMG, that is so rectilinear
  • Two hundred years ago today, city commissioners signed off on a street grid for Manhattan, planning for right-angled blocks all the way up to 155th Street even though few people had settled any farther north than “North Street”—today, known as Houston Street. Mapping 155 crosstown streets, bisected by 11 avenues, planners envisioned more than 1700 blocks, “impos[ing] their…matrix on the forests, farms, salt marshes, country estates and common lands that extended north for nearly eight miles…and expanded the city’s plotted land area by nearly fivefold,” Sam Roberts wrote in yesterday’s New York Times.

    It was controversial then: John Randel, the surveyor and engineer who drafted and executed the grid plan, and associates were “pelted with artichokes and cabbages; arrested by the sheriff for trespassing (and often bailed out by Richard Varick, a former mayor); sued for damages after pruning trees; and attacked by dogs sicced on them by property owners irate at the prospect of streets’ being plowed through their properties,” Roberts wrote in a sidebar. And the plan remains controversial to this day.

    What everyone can agree on is that the grid laid the groundwork, somewhat literally, for the development that would consume Manhattan over the subsequent decades, which outpaced even the commissioners’ expectations: in 1811, they imagined that in 50 years the population could rise as high as 400,000. By 1860, it was double that. From 1842 to 1860, the value of Manhattan real estate doubled. The grid also proved resilient, Roberts writes: “It accommodated motor vehicles (after sidewalks and stoops were pruned). It allowed planners to superimpose Central Park in the 19th century”—because planners incorporated almost no parks in their design, figuring residents would seek recreation on the riverfronts—”and superblocks like those of Stuyvesant Town and Lincoln Center in the 20th.”

    But not everyone is convinced that Manhattan turned out for the best. Consider, for example, the psychic toll it took. “I still think it distances us from our natural surroundings, and it has given us a slightly spurious and diminished mental geometry,” an author told Roberts. “We think more in terms of linear blocks than neighborhoods.”