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Friday, April 19, 2013

The Randel Farm Maps

One of the previously unsung heroes of nineteenth century New York--whose praises are actually being sung a bit more often these days--is John Randel, Jr. As chief surveyor of the 1811 Commissioners' Plan that established the Manhattan street grid, Randel perhaps had a greater effect on our day-to-day life in the city than any of his contemporaries. For the first time, Randel has been the subject of a major biography, The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor, which has just recently been published.

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.”
Though Randel finished his first survey in 1810, he then produced an even more important work--a detailed atlas of the island of Manhattan, showing both the existing farms and the new, superimposed grid. This atlas, known as the Randel Farm Maps, now resides in the office of the Manhattan Borough President.

In conjunction with the exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of the Manhattan, 1811-2011 at the Museum of the City of New York in 2011, the entire atlas was digitized and the maps "stitched" together so that anyone with a computer and some time to kill can examine Randel's marvelous work in detail. The maps are online at and it really is a great way to time travel back to the early nineteenth century. Most recently, we've been consulting the maps in preparation for our new West Chelsea Walking Tour, which you can participate in on Sunday, April 28.

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Find out more about John Randel, Jr., and the 1811 grid in
our book:

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