Tuesday, March 29, 2011
This past Tuesday, March 22 2011, marked the 200th anniversary of the beloved Commissioners Plan of 1811. Our ever-forward thinking city fathers decided to give order to the chaos that was becoming New York City. In 1808, they assigned the enormous and seemingly insurmountable task of reigning in that chaos and surveying Manhattan to 21-year-old John Randel Jr., the secretary, surveyor and chief engineer for New York City’s street commissioners. What we got is the rigid 90-degree grid that spurred unprecedented development, instituted by visionary commissioners who imposed their 2,000-block plan on the forests, farms, salt marshes, country estates and open lands that extended north for nearly eight miles to what would become 155th Street, and significantly expanded the city’s surveyed landscape. It also made Manhattan the easiest of the borough of the City of New York to get around and probably the easiest city in the world to navigate.
The Albany born Randel was described as “being more ambitious of accuracy than profit”. Taking precise measurements with instruments he invented, Randel filled more than 40 leather books with field notes. In March 1811, Randel submitted three hand-drawn manuscript surveys, each nearly nine feet long. Randel spent the next 10 years staking out and marking the intersections from First Street to 155th Street with 1,549 three-foot-high marble monuments and, when the ground was too rocky, with 98 iron bolts secured by lead. He also charted the terrain to the northern tip of Manhattan to produce his “farm map,” of 92 sheets filling four volumes that together would measure 11 by 50 feet.
Randel, one of the City of New York’s most unsung heroes, was furious when the commissioners hired another surveyor, William Bridges, to publish their first engraved grid map. Not only did Bridges’ version leave out Randel’s name, he also left out 58 structures and nipped the width of the island by 200 feet. Randel embellished his original map in 1814, but it was not published until 1821 because he feared that the British, who had just burned Washington, might use it to attack New York.
The execution of the survey was fraught with challenges. It was said that the surveyors fought their way though forests, shrubs and briars “impassible without the aid of an ax.” Manhattan north of 14th street was sparsely developed, there were farms, summer estates and settlements dispersed about the island, but there was still a good deal of too much nature getting in the way of progress. There were streams, ponds, swamps and hills to contend with. Manhattan comes from the Lenape word manahatta, which means “Island of many hills” or “rocky place” (in another translation manahatta means “place were we all got drunk”). The Manhattan we know and love today was drained, de-forested and leveled (leveled as much as possible) through out the 19th century. This leveling of streets often left houses precariously perched on a newly formed outcropping overlooking a gully that had not existed before. The re-landscaping also began the continual adding on to this island, just over 2000 acres over the last 200 years.
In addition to nature getting in the way, there were problems along the way with various landowners. If you look at the early maps of Manhattan, very often there are structures in place that would eventually be in the middle of a street. The surveyors were authorized to “cut down trees and do other damage” for which owners would be later compensated. Owners saw this as trespass and it was not unusual for Randel and his crew to be pelted with vegetables, fruit, rocks and garbage. On more than one occasion Randel was arrested by the sheriff for trespassing and often bailed out by leading citizen Richard Varick, a former mayor and for whom Varick Street was named. There were many situations of dogs being used to attack the surveyors. Property owners were irate at the prospect of streets’ being plowed through their estates and farms. Sued for damages after being authorized to cut down trees and having done “other damage”, Randel noted of the landowners, “many of whose descendants have been made rich thereby.” Ultimately, he had to resurvey 30 miles after vandals or disgruntled property owners removed many of 1549 marble markers.
There has been much criticism over the years of the grid. Initially the grid did not include spaces for parks. There was a 240-acre plot labeled “Parade Ground” but as far as wide-open public spaces, that was it. The grid marked off “blocks”, our beloved city blocks. Each block was then divided in to lots, generally 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. The grid was considered too uniform and dull and did not allow for the inclusion of wide-open plazas or squares as other cities, in particular European cities had.
However, the grid did easily allow for the eventual insertion of a centrally located park (in addition to places like Lincoln Center and the United Nations). The streets laid out in the grid were no longer narrow crooked streets, but wide cross streets and even wider avenues. Manhattan south of 14th street has many charming narrow and crooked streets. These streets laid out prior to 1808 were often based on the boundary of a pond or a stream, however usually based on colonial era (Dutch as well as British) property lines. The grid allowed for groups of houses to be further apart, separated by cross streets generally wider than their lower Manhattan counterparts and north / south avenues even wider than the cross streets. This was a new and huge advantage in old, wooden, always ready for a fire New York. Although I have not read this anywhere yet but it would make sense that in disease prone old New York, were Cholera was constantly a threat, narrow denser streets bred epidemics. The grid allows us an easy way to navigate this island with our cross streets marking one mile every 20 blocks (New York can never go metric – the re-surveying and moving buildings would cost too much). Even more obvious is that this island is very well suited for such a layout.
The grid, probably the most important pieces of the development of New York (in 1808 when the survey was begun Manhattan was New York, the other boroughs were still separate towns) as well as being incredibly far –sighted. In a city where the majority of the population lived within a mile and a half of Battery Park, this commission was thinking of the future. An ever-growing population had to have somewhere to go. Most New Yorkers lived below Houston Street. Legend has it that when City Hall was built, for example, the front was surfaced with marble but the rear of the building was brownstone. The reason for this is that most people lived south of the building and very few people would see the north side. In 1811 the commissioners had predicted that by 1860, their city of 60,00 inhabitants would grow in number to 400,000 and would live all the way up near 34th street. The population in 1860 was 800,000 and the leveling of Manhattan was well under way and the land value doubled between 1842 and 1860.
The Grid basically begins at a straight line drawn across the island at 14th street. The grid did not include the already well-established neighborhood of Greenwich Village, it was left alone. Broadway (back then it was called the road to Bloomingdale north of 23rd street and had been so since 1703) was left alone as well. Broadway is the only street within the layout of the grid that does not conform to the grid. It is also the only street to go the whole length of the island. Broadway is also the only street to follow due north, the Native Americans who marked the trail that became Broadway followed the North Star. Over the years, the original road was straightened, made more grid like in spots. There are many places, as we know, that Broadway takes its original route. It gives us Madison Square, which is an actual square. However Herald Square, Times Square, Lincoln Square, Sherman Square and Verdi Square are not actually squares. They are more like triangles but “Times Triangle” sounds silly).
The grid went only as far north as 155th street. This happened for two reasons. The topography of the land changes dramatically in northern Manhattan. It comes rockier and more mountainous. The highest natural point in the City of New York is north of 155th street (Bennett Park between 183rd and 185th streets and Fort Washington and Pinehurst Avenues). The other reason was, even with all that forward thinking, the question arose – how is anybody going to get that far uptown?
“The grid does not limit us,” said Scott Stringer, the Manhattan borough president. “It gives us a foundation to adjust to and a way to navigate Manhattan.”
John Randel Jr. gave us what has been called “The City of Angles”.
In 1864, a year before he died, Randel proudly stated that his grid afforded “safety from conflagration, beautiful uniformity and convenience” and “greatly enhanced the value of real estate.” He was absolutely right.