Museum exhibit highlights 200th birthday of Manhattan’s street grid

Could Manhattan have ended up being laid out with something other than its simple grid, which gives the New York City borough its distinctiveness?

The answer is yes. Until the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 was implemented over a period of decades, Manhattan was destined to end up a patchwork of different sized lots and streets.

The grid is being honored right now at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY) with the exhibit The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, which the museum describes this way:

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011 celebrates the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the foundational document that established Manhattan’s famous street grid. Featuring an original hand-drawn map of New York’s planned streets and avenues prepared by the Commission in 1811, as well as other rare historic maps, photographs and prints of the evolution of the city’s streets, and original manuscripts and publications that document the city’s physical growth, the exhibition examines the grid’s initial design, implementation, and evolution. The Greatest Grid traces the enduring influence of the 1811 plan as the grid has become a defining feature of the city, shaping its institutions and public life.

The NYT has a great piece today by Michael Kimmelman, “The Grid at 200: Lines That Shaped Manhattan”.

Savannah, whose downtown grid was more than 70 years old by the time Manhattan got serious about extending its, gets a mention:

First, Manhattan had to be surveyed, a task that took years. Property lines had to be redrawn, government mobilized for decades on end to enforce, open, grade and pave streets. Some 60 years passed before the grid arrived at 155th Street. Streets were still “rough and ragged” tracks for a long while, as one diarist observed in 1867, describing a recently opened stretch around 40th Street and Madison Avenue as a mess of “mud holes, goats, pigs and geese.”

Even so, the grid gave the island a kind of monumentality and order.

Was it monotonous? Yes. Frederick Law Olmsted was among those who thought so. Other city plans are certainly more sophisticated (Paris) or elegant (Barcelona) or stately (Savannah, Ga.).

But New York’s grid had its virtues. For one thing, it proved flexible enough to adapt when the city’s orientation did shift north-south, flexible enough to accommodate Olmsted’s Central Park, the genius of which lies in the contrast between its own irregularity and the regularity of the grid.

Kimmelman also notes other ways in which the grid has proven adaptable, beyond the financial boon created by development largely due in part to the grid itself:

Money and aesthetics aren’t antithetical, and the grid has proved itself oddly beautiful.

I’m referring not just to the sociability it promotes, which Jane Jacobs identified, or to the density it allows, which Rem Koolhaas celebrates, or even to the ecological efficiency it sustains, which now makes New York, on a per-capita basis, a very green place. I’m also referring to a kind of awareness it encourages.

It’s true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street.

The piece also notes what should be one of the most obvious factors: “The grid also makes a complex place instantly navigable. [. . .] The city, like its grid, exists to be adopted and made one’s own.”

It’s a great piece, and obviously of particular interest to those of us interested in the future of urban spaces and of urbanism generally.