The Bicentennial of the Manhattan Street Grid

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Two hundred years ago, the island of Manhattan was a thriving port city with a rapidly growing population and scattered farms dotting much of the northern part of the island. But even then, city planners knew Manhattan could become one of the great cities in the world. And a great city deserves a great street grid. Today marks the 200th anniversary of that initiative.

New York University professor Hilary Ballon, who is curating an upcoming exhibit on Manhattan's street grid at the Museum of the City of New York, said the city's growth prompted city leaders to act.

"It was going to continue to grow," she said. "And in order to thrive, it needed to be ordered in a regular way. That was the impulse behind the creation of this master plan -- the 1811 grid."

Before the grid could be planned, city leaders encountered what could be called an early form of NIMBY-ism. Ballon said property owners objected to their land being cut up into straight lines. That's when the city council turned to the state legislature.

"They said, 'You help us. Come up with a plan, because you'll be in a better position to override the local property owners who object,'" Ballon said.

Between 1807 and 1811, a group of surveyors scouted the island and began plotting out the lines that would become the city's streets. They weren't exactly welcomed when they traveled through the city's farmland.

"They encountered animosity. John Randall, the lead surveyor writes about being attacked by tomatoes and being pelleted in other ways as he traversed people's lands," Ballon said.

The street grid proposal was called formerly the Commissioners' Map and Survey of Manhattan Island. It stretched from Houston Street to 155th Street. Broadway wasn't an original part of the plan; it was only later on that the Great White Way was reinstated.

"The fact that we have Broadway to this day and we love it and yet we don't perceive it in any way as undermining the effectiveness of the grid, or the presence of the grid, tells us something about just how flexible it is," Ballon said.

And what about the West Village, whose criss-crossing and circular streets can stump tourists and natives alike? Ballon said the West Village represents a compromise.

"If you wanted an absolutely clear plan, you would've drawn a line right across Houston from river to river," Ballon said. "But being practical, the planners said, 'No, let's carve out this neighborhood, which is already well established and we'll begin our grid just north of it.'"

According to Ballon, the street grid was originally created to accommodate the unloading of commerce from ships and then transport those goods between the East and Hudson rivers. But now it's been able to adapt to new technology like cars.

"It really is a brilliant network," Ballon said.