Hilary Ballon on the History and Impact of New York City's Grid

The Greatest Grid: Manhattan's Master Plan, 1811-2011, Hilary BallonOur featured book of the week is The Greatest Grid: Manhattan’s Master Plan, 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon. (The book makes an excellent gift and is part of our special 40% off holiday sale). The following is an excerpt from the book’s introduction, in which Ballon describes the impact and importance of the grid for New York City history and urban planning.

The street grid is a defining element of Manhattan, the city’s first great civic enterprise, and a vision of brazen ambition. It is also a milestone in the history of city planning and sets a standard to think just as boldly about New York’s future. This book and the related exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York honor the bicentennial of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 —the city’s foundational act of planning and a key to its identity.

The 1811 grid speaks to the city’s optimism about its future and its courage to do big things. In 1811, New York was a dynamic but still small city concentrated south of Canal Street, yet the commissioners boldly projected its extension to the heights of Harlem across 155 undeveloped streets. In the nineteenth century the grid grew horizontally, moving up the island. In the twentieth century it grew vertically, with skyscraper extrusions. The grid was a living framework, which enabled the city to grow and evolve over time; the grid itself also changed but without compromising its essential character.

The crooked streets of lower Manhattan remind us that the grid was not the natural or pre-ordained condition of the city. The grid was designed and required vigilant enforcement to secure its uninterrupted, straight streets and avenues. The Greatest Grid attempts to denaturalize the grid and recover the process of implementing it and developing New York’s gridded persona. That process involved reorganizing property lines; mobilizing government to open, grade, and pave streets; carving land into real estate parcels; and fostering the New York system of street walls, view corridors, and walkable streets that are also great social spaces.

Different interpretations have been projected on the grid. Some historians see the grid as emblematic of the democratic society forged in the early republic. All blocks are equal and no sites are inherently privileged, for example by a grand boulevard pointing the eyes of the city at a free-standing monument. Other historians have stressed the utility of the grid in subdividing the land and supporting real estate development. The grid enabled the efficient carving up of the land into rectangular ground lots, in parallel with Thomas Jefferson’s national rectangular survey that organized land sales in square mile townships. Another school of thought has stressed
the symbolic meanings of the grid, which materialize the ideal of Cartesian order in its numbered streets and coordinate system, unique among gridiron towns where streets typically are named for trees or people or places….

The grid was more than an abstract idea established in 1811, it was an ongoing project that evolved over time. The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan,1811–2011 seeks to document for the first time the creation and implementation of the grid—how lines on paper were inscribed in the ground and acted as the framework for two hundred years of city living while Manhattan’s population grew from about 100,000 to 1.6 million. The Greatest Grid also reframes ideas about New York—ideas about planning, public space, and history—that are rooted in its signature street plan.

First, while often seen strictly as an instrument of laissez-faire urbanism, the grid was also an exemplar of planning and a multigenerational public works project that the city built throughout the nineteenth century. The city adopted the grid as a master plan to structure its long-term growth. And in order to bring the grid into three-dimensional being, it was necessary for the city government to refashion itself, to develop a set of governmental bodies and a public process to build and finance streets. The grid represents the city’s historic commitment to planning and attempt to balance the public realm and individual preferences: Manhattan’s regular blocks
and lots make possible an infinite number of individual decisions.

Second, the grid is typically seen as standing in opposition to public space because it blanketed the city with development lots, providing few parks and squares. However, as Jane Jacobs stressed in her tributes to New York’s vibrant street life, the grid also constituted the streets and sidewalks as the city’s public realm. Unlike
the plazas of old European cities or of Washington, D.C., the 1811 plan endowed New York with a distinctive type of public space enmeshed with the ordinary street system of the city. The establishment of the grid in the nineteenth century set in motion an expanded understanding of the public realm and the role of government in
fostering it. Simply put, the idea of the public realm in New York is inseparable from its streets.

Third, the grid provided a framework that allowed individual property owners to make individual decisions, and balanced order and disorder. As some historians have argued, American cities were “shaped by a culture of privatization”; in the words of urban historian Sam Bass Warner, cities are “not the products of community
planning or public initiative but the aggregation of decisions of individualistic Americans.” The 1811 grid was a public initiative, but its scaffolding allowed those individual decisions to be made.

Fourth, in our fast changing world where technology is outdated in a blink and future-proofing is the gold standard, the grid has demonstrated remarkable flexibility. Over two hundred years, the scale of architecture has changed from three-story walk-ups to skyscrapers more than 1,000 feet tall. Parks and avenues unanticipated by
the plan have been created. The grid gave rise to a particular kind of from influential people. It would have been easier not to destabilize the landownership on the island. Now the grid appears as a natural condition, but it was consciously made by forward-thinking men and reinforced by city leaders over decades. The commitment to prepare New York for the future sets an example for our times; do we have the capacity to address climate change, build twenty-first-century infrastructure, and promote sustainable growth?

In 1848, after only forty years, the grid’s original surveyor, John Randel, Jr., noted how attitudes to the grid had changed. “This magnificent plan, which is now the pride and boast of this city, was at that early day opposed (like all other great improvements) as being visionary.” The future depends on today’s visions.

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