There is a lesson to be learned from the new show at the Museum of the City of New York. Titled: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011”, you get a black and white example of why future city planning is so important to New York City. Where would New York City be today without its grid layout? Would the city have developed so strongly in just a few years if confusion had reigned, making mass transit almost impossible?
Think about this: back in 1811, Simeon De Witt, Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherfurd were entrusted with planning for the future expansion of the city. Most of the city lived below Canal Street at that time. But the rest of Manhattan wasn’t uninhabited. It was filled with farms and homes of landowners. Overlaying a grid in Manhattan was deeply subversive because, while still undeveloped, the island was already parceled into irregularly shaped, privately owned properties.
Planning the grid entailed making the first comprehensive survey of Manhattan. Before Manhattan could rise as a city, it had to create the streets, avenues, and blocks that make it the metropolis it is. As Michael Kimmelman says in the New York Times on 1/2/12;
This meant the appropriation of land and reconstruction. 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.
The grid was big government in action, a commercially minded boon to private development and, almost despite itself, a creative template. With 21st-century problems — environmental, technological, economic and social — now demanding aggressive and socially responsible leadership, the exhibition is a kind of object lesson.
The grid allowed for orderly growth and laid out a vision for the future. As Michael Kimmelman says in the New York Times on 1/2/12;
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.
For another thing, the grid turned out to be, far beyond what anyone could have envisioned in 1811, a windfall for those same landowners who first opposed it, but then whose newly rejiggered lots on subdivided blocks came to be worth fortunes. New York property values boomed thanks to the grid, which effectively created the real estate market.
You can read more in Michael Kimmelman’s “The Grid at 200: Lines that Shaped Manhattan“.