There’s a Random Kind of Order in ‘City on a Grid’

New York’s paradigm-smashing and somewhat haphazardly planned 1811 street grid didn’t quite bring order to the chaotic metropolis, but it helped create the city that it is today.

Order has never been something that most people associate with New York. Among the estranged and jealous family of American cities, the old Dutch trading post that redefined the very idea of what a metropolis could be has always suffered from a reputation for chaos. And not the fun, Lord of Misrule brand of chaos witnessed in places like New Orleans, but a genuine lack of order. There is no other American city so associated with breakdowns in the body politic or general operating principles as New York.

Until comparatively recently in its history, one of the most common comments from visitors was the stench coming from all the dead horses and filth piled in the streets; not precisely hallmarks of a well-ordered modern metropolis.

Further, the city’s fragile ethnic and religious heterogeneity was upended every few years by a new wave of immigrants with different customs and language. Even a brief survey of New York’s 19th century is littered with street battles (including one between two rival police departments), epidemics, fires, financial panics, corruption scandals, and numerous riots that were only quelled once the National Guard charged in. The ’70s were so marked by blackout rioting, a shooting-gallery murder rate, and fiscal collapse, that an entire generation of tourists likened visiting there with entering a war zone.

So how come, amidst all this tumult and catastrophe, is New York so associated with pioneering the classical American urban paradigm of rigid discipline and order; i.e., the right-angle street grid seen today everywhere from Chicago to Los Angeles? In short, because, like so many other things, New York got there first. In City on a Grid, Gerard Koeppel (Water for Gotham) explains that he wrote the history of the city’s revolutionary street grid because it was interesting and nobody had done it yet.

By Jleon [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Koeppel brings a disarming wit, tossing a light jab at his own profession at the start. Noting that he isn’t an architect, engineer, politician, or urban planner, but in fact just a historian, he then provides a definition:

Historians are like people who yell fire in empty theaters: no one gets hurt, often no one hears, and sometimes the building burns down.

Keeping the narrative light on its feet and keeping his targets well within range, Koeppel resists the urge of too many modern historians to inflate their topic. Other writers might have used the story of the grid, which after all did change almost everything about New York from the time it was implemented, as a portal through which to view not just this city itself but all cities. We’ve perhaps seen too many examples of books extrapolating from the micro to the macro (e.g., How Soccer Explains the World, most things by Mark Kurlansky). At the same time, Koeppel doesn’t stint on illustrating just how radical a change the street grid was for New York, how dramatically fraught its execution was, or how clumsily it was thrown together.

New York didn’t appear to even think about how to organize itself until after the Revolutionary War, when it was already over a century and a half old. In 1797, the city hired Casimir Goerck and Joseph Francois Mangin to create the first post-Independence map of the city. At the time, the city was still huddled mostly in lower Manhattan on cramped and randomly laid out streets, much like it had been since the first Dutch beaver-trading settlement. There wasn’t much built north of today’s Canal Street, and the citizens seemed to give little thought to what the city would become.

In 1798, after Goerck was killed by the same yellow fever that killed 2,000 of the city’s 60,000 residents, Mangin wrote a note to the city’s Common Council that describes his map as “not the plan of the city such as it is, but such as it is to be.” Koeppel highlights this moment because before then “no New Yorker had written, or perhaps even thought” about what form the city should take.

A mere nine years later, New York had authorized the creation of a future street plan that would emphasize “health, convenience, and beauty”. The grand rhetoric, though, wasn’t quite carried through in its execution. An 1807 law authorized three commissioners who neither lived on Manhattan nor liked the place very much — Gouverneur Morris, Simeon DeWitt, and John Rutherfurd — to complete a street grid however they saw fit within four years. It was a sweeping grant of power, giving them full authority to map out streets and public spaces over a 13-mile-long island of 11,000 acres. Beyond some very general specifications about the width of the avenues and streets, the commissioners were given free rein to say where the streets would be laid and which pre-existing roads and buildings would have to go in the process. Koeppel characterizes the law as “the greatest act of eminent domain in New York’s history.”

The street grid authorized in 1811 turned a hodgepodge of curves and tilted angles into one dominant lattice of rectangles marching up the island, plotting out the city that was to fill it. The roughly east-west streets, from 1st to 155th (the original plan didn’t go further north than that since it was thought it would be “centuries” before the city would expand that far) were all about 200 feet apart and 60 feet wide; except the seemingly random wider ones that are 100 feet across. North-south avenues 1 through 12 were all about 100 feet wide. That uniform layout is what dominates the map of the city today.

What the plan didn’t have a lot of was public space, which wasn’t considered to be terribly important to the city’s future. That future would be a rectilinear one of numbers, not names, of interchangeable blocks that would be either utilitarian and democratic or a straight-jacket kind of quasi-urban fascism, depending on one’s point of view.

City on a Grid, it must be said, becomes a far more interesting book once the grid begins to be put into effect and all the opposing points of view begin to wake up to the radically different city that was being imposed upon them. Earlier chapters laid the foundation for the struggles to follow, but lavished so much attention on the minutiae of which surveyor did what work on which map that even some students of urban history could find their attention flagging.

But after 1811, it’s a different story. Koeppel quotes historian I. N. Stokes that that year marked “the end of the little old city and the beginning of the great modern metropolis.” It made for a dramatic change, and not one welcomed by all, even the ones who stood to make some money on selling their land to the city. Charges of “tyranny” abounded, along with criticism of how the commissioners, as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” author (and owner of the great estate that became the Chelsea neighborhood) Clement Clarke Moore put it, “cut up and tear down … with no higher notions of beauty and elegance than straight lines.”

Koeppel uses the grid’s relentless northward march, with its rampant land speculation (John Jacob Astor became the richest man in America just by buying land that hadn’t been built on yet) and ruthless dynamiting or filling in of every hillock or valley that got in its way, as a way to tell a surrogate history of the city. As Manhattan turns from wooded island of farms and swamps to numbered rectangles of often indistinguishable urbanity, ripples appear in the city’s perfect grid. Central Park is allowed to stand as a green fortress surrounded by serried ranks of concrete, and eventually some streets north of 155th are allowed to bend and swoop with the curve of the land instead of being blasted straight through them. By and large today, it’s those surprising ripples that attract the eye, not the perspective-defying avenues disappearing into the sunset.

This book isn’t a lament for the city that might have been. But it also isn’t a celebration of the 1811 plan, as randomly put together and brutally enforced as it was. Koeppel doesn’t give in completely to those who decry the grid as a destruction of the old city’s charming and unplanned agglomeration of thoroughfares. He does, however, denote the grid as the city’s “original sin,” something that defined it ever after, for better or for worse. It’s a plan made for ease and regularity of planning, not necessarily the convenience or enjoyment of its residents. “The grid easily obliterates memory,” Koeppel writes, in acknowledgment of New York’s unsentimental attitude toward the past. He quotes Danish-born politician Niels Gron who in 1900 said of New York that “We expect of her power and magnificence, but not beauty.”

That’s the New York that the street grid made. A massive and awe-inspiring imposition of man’s will upon nature. After it was put in place, the city would have to rely on buildings, and not the undifferentiated streets and avenues they sat on, to take visitors’ breath away and make its residents glad they chose to make New York City their home.

RATING 6 / 10