13 Facts About the Greatest Grid: How a Plan from 1811 Allowed New York City to Grow

The Greatest Grid, Hilary Ballon

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon, recounts the history of the planning, implementation, and impact of the grid on New York City.

Conceived as a plan that was both logical and a reflection of the democratic values of the American republic, the grid has stood the test of time thanks to both its rigidity and its flexibility and has allowed for the city’s geographical and economic expansion. As the book and the accompanying exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York reveal, the grid is a reflection of and has shaped the city’s political, economic, and cultural character for more than two hundred years.

* The commissioners of the 1811 plan noted rather scornfully that they had eschewed the “circles, ovals and stars which certainly embellish a plan” in favor of “convenience and utility.”

* New York’s grid plan was to first to eliminate named streets altogether (the names came later). The rationality behind Manhattan’s street numbering system—Cartesian analytical geometry—also underpins early modern conceptions of space more generally.

* The key to the greatness of the grid is variety. It is not made up of evenly spaced, similarly sized blocks. The blocks, which are all 200 feet wide (north to south), vary in length (east to west) from less than 250 feet to more than 900 feet. Most east-west streets are 60 feet wide. However, seventeen of them are 100 feet wide. Most, but not all north-south avenues are 100 feet wide. Madison and Lexington Avenues (each 80 feet wide) were introduced after the 1811 plan to accommodate additional traffic.

* The original surveyors were regularly obstructed, attacked, and sued for damages for cutting branches to complete their work.

* The 1811 commissioners who laid out the grid had assumed that it would take several centuries for urban growth to reach above 155th Street.

* To early visitors, the grid was disorienting; the streets looked alike and offered no landmarks or mnemonic devices to distinguish one from the next.

* The commissioners’ original plan has undergone several changes demonstrating that although Manhattan’s grid may look rigid, it actually proved flexible. The grid provided the city with an organizing principle—orthogonality—which could absorb modifications within its rectilinear structure.

* In 1807, the assessed value of New York City real estate was $25 million. In 1887 the assessed value reached $1.255 billion.

* As the city opened, built, and paved streets through the East Side, it broke up the old country estates owned by prosperous New York families: the Beekmans, Schermerhorns, Lenoxes, and Rhinelanders. Some heirs unsuccessfully tried to hold the city at bay and maintain the integrity of their ancestral land, while others, such as James Beekman, divided their property into lots and increased their family’s wealth in the real estate market.

* In the 1840s Park Avenue consisted of squatter homes; in the 1860s breweries and factories dominated what was then 4th Avenue

* Boss Tweed’s improvements to the city led to great (and illicits) profits for himself by skimming dollars and investing in the grid himself. For better or for worse, the mark of Tweed endures in the built environment of the city that we know today.

* Robert Moses pursued a decades-long program of slum clearance, replacing entire neighborhoods with superblocks under the banner of urban renewal. Although the housing superblocks fit neatly into the orthogonal street system, they completely changed the grain of the city. The oversize blocks did not have the grid’s walkable character, and because they were generally reserved for only one building type—residential—they lost the mixed-use quality of the building-lined street wall. In changing the scale and density of the grid, the superblocks destroyed what made it unique.

* Walking at a comfortable pace and factoring in some time spent waiting for traffic lights to change, a New Yorker can expect to cover a block a minute on foot.

* The term gridlock made its first appearance in public discourse in the New York Times during the crippling 1980 transit strike.

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