Happy Birthday, Dear Grid: 200 Years of New York’s Cartesian Corset

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Manhattan’s gridiron street plan, which celebrates its 200th birthday this week, has been praised by Rem Koolhaas as “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization.” John Updike settled for “that fine old machine for living.” But one man’s efficiency is another man’s monotony. Over the years, the grid has also been compared to a corset, a prison, and a Procrustean bed. The most useful metaphor, though, might be a mirror: The grid is at once a frame for life in the city and a reflection of it. The system has done much to make Manhattan what it is, and for two centuries now New Yorkers have been arguing about whether they like what they see.

The purpose of the plan state-appointed commissioners John Rutherfurd, Gouverneur Morris, and Simeon De Witt filed on March 22, 1811 was “to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit.” Disdaining the “circles, ovals, and stars” that embellished other cities, they grafted onto the island a lattice of smaller streets running east-west overlaid with twelve long avenues, all of them 100 feet wide, opening along the north-south axis. (An exception was made for Broadway’s diagonal course, already stitched too tightly into daily life to untangle.) The crooked colonial warrens of lower Manhattan became relics. Uptown, valleys were to be filled, hills flattened, and streams paved over. Everywhere the earth gave way to the relentless new order. On the grid’s straight lines, which girded the land between today’s Houston Street up to 155th Street, the city would slide into the future.

It was this indifference to the old landscape that was the target of early complaints. The new Manhattan, mourned one critic, was nothing but “a grind of money-making.” The Commissioners freely conceded as much: “When ... the prices of land are so uncommonly great,” they confessed, “it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence.” The grid did not invent Manhattan’s commercial spirit, it simply made it visible — to the point, perhaps, of obscuring everything else. Wrote a visiting Frenchman in 1864: “a city where the streets are numbers is like ... a vast hotel open to anyone who comes along, where only money distinguishes one man from another.”

It’s not the only power that’s ever been attributed to the grid. Like a good conspiracy theory, the grid explains everything: It is the secret system underlying the city’s visible universe, the origin of all manner of injustices. The 1811 map is the reason streets steam with trash in the summer (no service alleys) and shriek with wind in the winter (air currents gather speed on straight avenues, which Henry James described as “black rat-holes, holes of gigantic rats, inhabited by whirlwinds.”) Rats, in fact, become disoriented in sprawling cities but thrive in grids. Without the grid, there would be no gridlock: It’s caused in part by the relative scarcity of north-south thoroughfares.

The hold the grid has over New Yorkers becomes clearest when we consider how we act in places where its fabric frays or stretches — the plan permitted three irregular “morsels” of land — or gives way completely. More than twenty people died during an 1849 riot in Astor Place, one of those morsels. A century ago, men gathered around the Flatiron Building waiting for gusts of wind produced by its grid-thwarting shape to lift women’s skirts and expose their ankles. At the end of the nineteenth century, bohemia was born off the grid, below Houston Street.

Mostly, of course, the grid makes finding our way around the city a pretty mindless task — a self-effacing virtue. It thinks for us, and so we never think of it. But on mild evenings, when a storm has cleared in time for sunset, we can see the system’s true and greater service. Then the sky streams down the avenues, which seem to run forever, like the rivers, and the stone grid rises around us. We realize we are standing at the bottom of a vast canyon, inside a wonder of the world.