The greatest grid: When America thought big

Most people who want to navigate the streets of New York City quickly learn the easy-to-follow logic of the city’s street grid. But what many—even long-time residents—may not know is how that grid came to be, and how it transformed Manhattan from a naturally rocky, hilly island into a level playing field that engendered the commercial and urban hub that New York City has become over the past 200 years.

Those who want to know can visit “The Greatest Grid,” an impressive exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, or buy the book that accompanies it. Both celebrate the 200th anniversary of the grid, which got its start in 1811, when New York City had about 96,000 residents.

The city’s leaders could see that the population was going to grow, and they wanted to create a city that worked—something modern and in contrast to many European cities, which lacked a coherent street system. [Think London.]  So, they commissioned a massive survey of the island. On display at the museum are the tools of the trade: surveyors’ transits, chains, quill pens, leather-bound logbooks inscribed with measurements and calculations in the flowery penmanship of the era, and stone mile markers that were installed along the way.

The survey took years, but it may have been the easiest part of this massive public-works project. The next step was to decide what kind of a grid the city would divide itself into. Grids were not new, and there were many models to choose from. In one section of the exhibit, you can study grid maps of Paris, Washington DC, Philadelphia and Savannah, Georgia—each of which has its own personality. Among the most intriguing grid maps is the one of Lima, Peru. According to historians, a city grid was part of Spain’s strategy in its invasion of Peru in the 16th century. Spanish settlers imposed a street grid on Lima as a way of—literally—dividing and conquering the local residents.

There was plenty of dividing and conquering to be done in New York City, too. The most populated area of Manhattan was its southern end, where landowners had well-established homes, farms and businesses–mostly on large, irregularly shaped parcels. Farther north, there were small homesteads and lots of squatters in makeshift shacks and tents. Few—whether rich or poor—were interested in moving and/or losing their land, so the city planners had to cut a lot of deals to get their plan off the ground.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the grid project is how it transformed Manhattan’s topography. The island was a rocky place, with a wide variety of elevations. The new grid essentially flattened everything in its path. At the New York City exhibit, dramatic pictures show how, as the process of grading streets and avenues proceeded, many homes and farms were left stranded atop hills, with the leveled street far below. Homeowners got no help from the city: They were responsible for building paths and steps up to their properties. Many simply found themselves in the way: Their homes were seized by eminent domain and torn down.

You can still get a glimpse of Manhattan’s natural topography, though. The original grid stopped at the northern end of the island, so those hills and rocky crags were not excavated. The difference is striking, and looking at the buildings built into the hills of the Bronx, you can almost imagine what the rest of Manhattan might have looked like before the bulldozers took over.

Don’t read that bit about the bulldozers wrong: I’m not here to superimpose a 21st century environmental sensibility onto a 19th century plan. They did what they did using the rationales and technologies of the day. It wasn’t all bad, and it wasn’t all good. In the end, the New York City grid was a lot of both. Most of the vision was economically motivated, and most of the immediate benefits accrued to those who were already doing well as landowners—although even some of them had to be convinced via cajoling, arm-twisting, and a likely dose of under-the-table dealing. If you were a low-end farmer or a squatter, your job was simply to get out of the way.  The planners ran roughshod over the little guy, and their regard for property rights and human rights was overridden by their huge ambitions [and, no doubt, greed]. I’m not dismissing those moral deficits.

But there were many benefits, too. As a part of the grid project, the city broke up land into smaller parcels, opening up possibilities for commerce and residential development. Those opportunities became available not just to owners of huge tracts of land, but also to on-the-rise entrepreneurs, for whom success could mean upward social and economic mobility not previously available to them. [Evidence of this trend is still visible today, in the intense New York City real-estate market, where fortunes continue to be made and lost.]

Walking through “The Greatest Grid,” I both indulged my inner nerd and got an imagination-popping, photographic glimpse into New York City’s history. I also found myself musing on the contrast between the accomplishments of 19th century city planners and our own inability not just to dream big, but even to spend money on basics like our electrical systems, our bridges, and our water and sewer facilities.

We’ve gone from the grand vision of an urban grid to complete political gridlock.

The people who dreamed up New York City’s grid, and their vision of the commercial and residential hub that it would help engender, were all about doing something big.  It’s tempting to say that, in the horse-and-buggy days, things were simpler and you could get things done more easily. Piffle. Yes, it can be harder to ram things through today, when so much more is out in the open. But aren’t entrenched interests  the same in every century? Resistance to change is resistance to change.

The ability to think big is always on the table, and to me, that’s the lesson of “The Greatest Grid.” I’m not pretending that it’s easy. It requires getting out of our own way by looking beyond our narrow interests, overcoming our obliviousness to the needs of others, and—for the sake of something much bigger—putting on hold our absolutist ideologies [right and left] and then thinking and acting—to use a 19th-century-sounding phrase—more grandly.