Where Manhattan’s grid plan came from


At first, this looks like a perfectly normal
map of New York City. You zoom in and there’s
Broadway, and Bowery. But then you realize that the map is…wrong. Streets run diagonally and the map adds land
beyond the edge of the island. That’s because this wasn’t a map. It was a plan that was rejected. And this one — the one with the perfect
grid we know — was basically what we ended up with. Today Manhattan has a grid so perfect that
the way the sun shines through it is a hashtag on Instagram. But these grids were not all about beautiful
design, or even making it easier to find your way around when you come up out of the subway. The real reason one of these plans made it
and the other didn’t? It says something about how — and why — all
cities develop the way they do. This is a utopia called Philadelphia. When William Penn designed Philadelphia in
1681, he wanted to make an ideal city. His intentions reflected American ideas and
his Quakerism. The lines on his grid weren’t just right
angles, they were morally right angles. He wanted to preserve a sense of a country
town using common areas and gardens. In 1733 in Savannah, Georgia, the Oglethorpe
Plan was influenced by the Enlightenment, with an emphasis on balance and limits on
the grid’s growth. That resulted in a grid too, but with an elegant
design including common squares where all could congregate, and
commons limiting the grid plan’s reach. Pierre L’enfant’s 1791 plan for Washington,
DC, was even more ambitious, and though the city deviated from his design, some flourishes
survived, like diagonal avenues sliced across the city, circles to vary the grid’s monotony,
and grand squares for each of the then-15 states. New York was never so organized. This 1767 map shows the chaotic curved streets
and irregularities that marked the nearly 150 years of European settlement. What little order that had developed was largely
private and subject to frequent change. This 1776 map shows a planned grid with a
large square. That square belonged to the Delancey estate
(Delaney was a typo). Because the prominent New York family supported
the British during the Revolutionary War, the city confiscated their land after the
war. This 1789 map shows what happened to their
planned square. It disappeared. New York could have been stuck with this chaos. But as the 1800s rolled around, it couldn’t
afford to be much longer. It’s tough to know New York’s exact population
before 1800, but the trend was clear – massive growth, more than doubling between 1770 and
1790. Outbreaks of yellow fever that spread up and
down the East Coast heightened the urgency to build a cleaner, more orderly city. And that is where this failed plan comes in
— in 1797 the city hired architect Joseph Mangin and surveyor Casimir Goerck to map
New York. The plan showed the city as it “should be,”
not as it was. They widened janky streets and even added
to the waterfront — they proposed something graceful, but the city needed something fast
— so their plan was rejected. In 1807, the state established a new commission
to create a workable plan, and it was huge. In this map, this color shows the settled
land, and this color shows the projected areas for the grid. In their official report, they said they’d
planned for “a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” The grid made sense to hold it. They had debated “whether they should confine
themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some
of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish
a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility.” Basically, did they want L’enfant’s Washington
or a uniform grid? They decided that, “right-angled houses
are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections
was decisive.” The grid did that without screwing up existing
property-lines. It was predictable for developers. This was a different type of design. The grid seems orderly to us, but this order
was in service of cheapness and efficiency. The city needed to build to keep going. What could be more New York than that? This plan isn’t for a city, but a park. Central Park. Landscape architect Frederick Olmsted designed
that park and many other public spaces. In a laundry list of criticisms of the New
York City grid, he said that, “Still other, and perhaps even graver, misfortunes to the
city…could have been avoided by a different arrangement of its streets.” The dream plan would have been more refined,
but this? It just wasn’t practical. City plans reflect values. And then they shape culture. In 1811, New York’s values were build, build,
build. So they adopted a plan to do it. Without development, you just have the sun. The buildings make it worth looking at. Hey that’s it for this episode about grids. I’m about to read some comments from the
previous episode of this Almanac: Road trip edition. It was all about the Vagabonds. “Edison was walking around calling Harvey
Firestone dude.” Uh yeah, he was, and also one thing I wasn’t
able to mention was that Edison was really hard of hearing at this time of his life,
so basically every time you wanted to talk to him you had to yell directly in his ear. “A 2019 version would probably be in a Tesla
with Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffet and Leonardo diCaprio.” I will see you next week, and I’m actually
going to be driving in this episode. So get ready and buckle up.

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