The Bicentennial of the Manhattan Street Grid

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

“Georeferencing” the British Headquarters Map in a geographic information system (GIS) allowed us to overlay the modern-road grid. Note the match between the colonial and modern streets. “Georeferencing” the British Headquarters Map in a geographic information system (GIS) allowed us to overlay the modern-road grid. Note the match between the colonial and modern streets. (Base map courtesy of National Archives, ref. MR1/463. Georeferenced by The Mannahattan Project/Wildlife Conservation Society. Street centerlines from the City of New York Department of Information Te)

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.


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Comments [1]

Thomas Lowenhaupt from Jackson Hts., New York

Today, the .nyc TLD (like .com and .org but just for New York City) presents us with a decision of similar scope: Do we create a user-friendly city whose resources are available via a variety of intuitive digital pathways? Or do we sell off a key digital resource willy-nilly to satisfy short term interests?

How we resolve the issues surrounding the .nyc TLD’s division and allocation, its integration with traditional systems and resources, how we assure its sustainability (perhaps for generations), and its ongoing governance will determine the city’s capacity to effectively function as a economic and social engine for its residents. As well, our response to these questions will determine our competitive position with other global cities with which we increasingly compete.

Additionally, in deciding on the .nyc TLD’s scope we will be marking our borders. In both the digital and real worlds, strong borders make good neighbors. Should our digital borders be coterminous with existing ones, or do they demand a rethinking to a regional or perhaps a hybrid geo-virtual configuration? Only when we’ve established those borders can we can begin to build a governance system within.

Toward A New Commissioners’ Plan

But DoITT’s decision is being made without any public participation, with city hall apparently ready to forgo the messiness of a democratic discussion. This is understandable as a city TLD is a new issue with little home grown expertise and much misunderstanding ahead. But it we’re to have a world class city-TLD, we’ll need the engagement of all to plan and support its development.

Councilmember Gale Brewer has advocated modifying the city charter to move oversight of digital resources in line with that of land use, modeled perhaps on the Uniform Land Use Review Procedure or ULURP. We applaud that agenda and note that a TLD, access to a fast and inexpensive Net, and appropriate training are all critical to creating a prosperous and livable city in a digital era. In exploring those Charter enhancements we urge that note be taken of the democratic potentials offered by the Net, including our

Today’s 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan offers a propitious moment to begin a multistakeholder exploration by city government, academia, civic organizations, industry, and the public to plan the architecture of our digital city.

Each day it becomes clearer that our future will be determined by the availability of critical resources such as domain names, fast and ubiquitous access to the Net, and an aware and trained populace. It’s not too late to begin a thoughtful examination of our digital future. Let’s begin today.

Tom Lowenhaupt, Founding Chair Inc.

[ Inc. is a NYS not-for-profit created to advocate for the development of the .nyc TLD as a public interest resource.

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Mar. 23 2011 12:06 PM

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