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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Manhattan Street Grid Turns 200

Readers of Inside the Apple know that we are big fans of the Manhattan street grid, in part because it has made the city so easy to navigate on foot. Today, the grid plan--technically the "Commissioners’ Map and Survey of Manhattan Island"--turns 200 years old.

As we write in Inside the Apple:

With the population rapidly increasing and without any plan for regulating property sales and population growth, it seemed very possible that the city would simply collapse underneath its own weight, with too many people crammed into the area of the city below Chambers Street but not enough food, water, or sanitation to go around. 
The grid plan was overseen by a commission headed by Gouverneur Morris, the eminent politician who’d written the preamble to the Constitution. The survey itself was carried out by John Randel, Jr.; he and his team walked out every block of the city from Houston Street to 155th Street in Harlem, charting over 2,000 city blocks in all. It was enough room, as was noted at the time, “for a greater population than is collected at any spot this side of China.”
The goal was to create a regular pattern of east-west streets; along the avenues, exactly twenty of the blocks made up a mile. In turn, these blocks could be divided into regular lots, 25 feet wide by 100 feet deep. Each lot would back up precisely to its neighbor, with no room behind for service alleys or carriageways. Not only did eliminating alleys allow for bigger, more desirable lots, it reflected the reality that very few in New York would ever have the means to own a horse and carriage. Thus, there was no need for rear stables.  
As so few people had access to horses and carriages, the Commissioners’ Plan reinforced that New York was a city for walking. The plentiful east-west streets connected the two rivers where most commerce took place, with the wide north-south avenues designed for transporting goods and people over longer distances. Until the opening of the subway in 1904, the grid served this original purpose well. Even with the coming of horse-drawn omnibuses, trolleys, street cars, and private vehicles, New York was simply easier to walk, and the vast majority of the city’s workers lived within relatively easy walking distance of their jobs.
Yesterday's New York Times had a few good articles about the grid, including an interactive feature where you can compare Manhattan today with Randel's 1811 plan, which is hours of fun.

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Read more about the Manhattan street grid in
Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City.

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