By Richard Howe
March 22 marked the 200th anniversary of the formal filing of the 1811 Commissioners Plan for the City of New York —- “the greatest grid,” in Edward Spann’s apt title —- which has been Manhattan’s bane and glory ever since. The impact of this plan on the life of the city -— for better and for worse -— has been so great that it is only natural to wonder why the Commissioners elected to lay out the city as they did —- despite their having explained it themselves in the plain enough English of their remarks to the plan:
. . . a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and . . . straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive. . . . the work in general should be rectangular . . . If it should be asked why was the present plan adopted in preference to any other, the answer is, because, after taking all circumstances into consideration, it appeared to be . . . attended with the least inconvenience.
. . . the incessant remonstrances of proprietors against plans . . . wherein their individual Interests do not concur and the Impossibility of completing those plans thus opposed by a tedious and expensive course of Law.
But what may have been obvious to the Commissioners in 1811 has since become obscure, so much so that it is easy to lose sight of the fact they were responding to a problem that had dogged the Mayor, Aldermen, and Commonalty of the City of New York for most of the quarter century that had passed since civil — and American — governance of the city was resumed in late 1783.
By 1775 colonial New York had become a “flourishing city” of perhaps 25,000 souls and some 4,000–5,000 buildings, nearly all of them jammed into the half square mile triangle forming the southern tip of the island. Most New Yorkers were Loyalists, some 20,000 of whom fled the patriots’ Spring 1775 takeover of the municipal government, abandoning their property and leaving behind a largely deserted city in the hands of the revolutionaries. The British forces regained the vacated city in September, 1776, but scarcely a week after their return a major fire consumed at least an eighth of the city’s buildings and possibly as many as a third or more. Nevertheless, the Loyalists began returning to the city: some 7,000 were back by the end of 1777, and by 1781 the civilian population was once again at its pre-war level. British troops and refugee Loyalists from elsewhere in the provinces raised the total in and around the city to as much as 40,000–50,000. A year later, in anticipation of the British withdrawal, the patriots began to return, and by the summer of 1783 the second Loyalist exodus had begun, with some 40,000 — relatively few of them originally New Yorkers — departing by the end of the year.
The result of these repeated upheavals was indeed something approaching civil chaos. So many properties had been abandoned, reclaimed, and abandoned again over the preceding eight and a half years that chief among the “Doubts . . . arisen from the late Invasion and Disorder” were the frequent uncertainties as to who could legitimately claim to own a given property or who owed what to whom in the way of rents or damages — a situation soon compounded by the uncertain status of claims originating during the occupation against the Loyalist properties now being forfeited to the city. Worse yet, even when the ownership of a given property was clear it was often difficult to say exactly where its boundaries lay, since so many of the old markers and reference points had been lost or disturbed. As the largest of the island’s landowners, the city was the most affected by these uncertainties, especially since — having no power to tax directly — sales and rentals of its properties were among its principal sources of income. Worst of all, it was unclear what authority the city had for dealing with this unprecedented situation.
These issues were so pressing that they dominated the early meetings of the city’s newly reconstituted Common Council. The minutes of its first regular session, on February 10, 1784, record that
. . . many Persons are greatly in Arrears for Rents and Quit Rents due to this Corporation [i.e., the city]; and the Exigencies of the City [render] it necessary that the said Arrears be collected as soon as possible.
The information available to the Council for resolving these issues was incomplete, inconsistent, or otherwise erroneous — and often contested. Perhaps despairing of the situation, on April 22, 1784, the Council ordered its treasurer
. . . to discover where all and every part of the Real Estate of this Corporation now lies, by whom every part of it hath been occupied during the late War, by whom [it] is now occupied; how long the present & respective late Tenants . . . have occupied the same.
The plague of real estate issues of all kinds was to continue for years to come, with the Council by turns playing the role of a frustrated landowner, a harassed landlord, and an unofficial land court. A turning point might have been reached as early as 1785, when the Council ordered a survey of its holdings “between the Post & Blooming Dale Roads,” subdividing them into five-acre lots. The result was City Surveyor Casimir Goerck’s 1785 “Plan of the Commons belonging to New York,” which, though not the first map of the city to propose a grid, was the first to extend one, however irregularly, as much as two miles northward up the center of the island. By 1789, at least some of these lots had been put up for sale by the city.
In these few years the Council had begun progressing, however haltingly, away from its initially ad hoc, case by case, approach to resolving the chaos left by the British occupation and towards a more general solution. But after 1785 this progress came to a decade-long halt. Possibly an equilibrium had been reached: though the “case load” of property issues remained high, it no longer threatened to become overwhelming; possibly the new country’s constitutional crisis and the precarious state of its economy made for more pressing concerns.
Serious attempts to deal with the situation resumed in 1796 when the Council had yet another survey of its Out Ward properties made, with “streets regularly laid down.” This survey is probably the one documented by Goerck’s second “Map of the Common Lands,” on which he extended his 1785 grid and made it more uniform. The lower stretches of what would be Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Avenues in the Commissioners Plan were laid out and the land between and to either side of them was divided into parcels — twenty per mile going northwards — whose east-west property lines correspond to the Commissioners’ numbered cross streets. These lots too were offered up for sale, and nearly sixty of them had been sold by the end of 1796.
In 1797 the Council contracted with Goerck and a newly appointed surveyor, Joseph Mangin, to make a new survey of all the city’s streets, existing as well as proposed. This might have been the end of the matter, and the intended result might well have come to play the part later taken by the Commissioners Plan, but Goerck died before the work was finished and although Mangin eventually delivered a map and the Council had it engraved, it was subsequently found deficient for the Council’s purposes and in November, 1803, a recall and refund was ordered.
Just as the Goerck-Mangin plan was collapsing, DeWitt Clinton was appointed Mayor. Settling the city’s ongoing property issues was an important adjunct to his larger vision of the city as the Atlantic port for his already projected Erie Canal. Clinton was a mover and shaker if ever there was one, and from this point on the pace of the efforts to resolve the city’s interminable property issues began to accelerate, though several years’ worth of failures and frustrations still lay ahead.
In January, 1804, almost immediately after the Goerck-Mangin fiasco, the Council appointed a new committee “to determine upon the propriety of ordering a new map to be made . . . [and] of laying out Streets.” A few months later they received a plan, but apparently it was not to their satisfaction, as nothing more was reported about it. Early in 1805 the Street Commissioner was ordered to prepare “an estimate of the expence of making a map of the Island of New York” which would show both the city’s real property and the existing roads. He reported deficiencies in the surveyors’ landmarks in the built-up parts of the city and the Council issued yet another order for resurveying the existing city streets. Apparently nothing came of this effort either, for another year on, in January, 1806, the Council once more resolved “that a correct Survey and map be made of the Island of New York,” this one to show the island’s topography as well as the existing roads and both individual and city properties. The Council hired the Philadelphia surveyor Hasler, but illness prevented him from even starting the job.
Behind these endlessly frustrating attempts to resolve the city’s property issues lay the irresolvably conflicting interests of the Common Council’s members regarding any such plans whatsoever. Then in 1806 — doubtless at DeWitt Clinton’s instigation — the Council began drafting an “Act for the appointment of Commissioners to regulate and lay out Streets in this City,” and in February, 1807, the Council formally appealed to the Legislature for its “wisdom” in these matters. The legislation enacting the requested wisdom — which consisted of taking the matter out of the hands of the fractious Common Council altogether— was passed a month later, on April 3, 1807. Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, and John Rutherford were named as Commissioners; they were given four years to complete their assignment.
The work got underway — initially with Simeon De Witt as surveyor but from 1808 on under the supervision of the much younger civil engineer John Randel, Jr. — only to be stalled for another two years by the legal and even physical opposition of Out Ward landowners. Further legislation enacted in 1809 extended the authority of the Commissioners sufficiently for the work to move forward, though by now only two years remained in which to complete it. On November 29, 1810, with just four months to go before their commission expired, Gouverneur Morris informed the Mayor that
. . the Commissioners for laying out the Manhattan Island have completed their work so far forth as it depends on them; but much is yet to be done on the ground. . . . So much, however, is accomplished, that . . . it will be practicable, to make within the time fixed by the Statute a report complying substantially, if not literally with the law, shewing all the streets to be laid out . . . .
The pre-history of the Manhattan grid ends here, though Randel’s “work on the ground” would continue for fully another ten years. Its real history begins with a petition to the Council from “sundry inhabitants” in May, 1811, requesting the opening of the newly planned “Third Avenue.” This history has continued to unfold for 200 years so far, and most likely will continue to do so for untold years to come.
The Commissioners were men who had witnessed the wartime devastation of New York first hand and afterwards had seen the shadows of its destruction lengthen into months, years, and finally decades of uncertainty in the relationships of real property that underlay their city’s civic order. Against that overwhelming experience of vulnerability and transience the grid offered the ultimate security of the purest mathematical objects: two points determine a straight line and the corners of a rectangle are each and always 90º. Against the ever present possibility that the city could be lost again, the mathematical logic of the grid vouchsafed its civil resurrection: if even only two of Randel’s thousands of survey markers survived a future catastrophe, the entire grid together with all its implicit property lines could at once be reconstructed from them with reference to nothing more than the widths of the streets and avenues and the lengths of the blocks between them as described in the Commissioners’ remarks to their plan. With the grid, the foundation of New York’s civic order would not only be inscribed on the island’s temporally all too mutable landscape, it would also be writ for all eternity in the immutable perfection of a geometric ideal.
Artist and photographer Richard Howe is the creator of New York in Plain Sight: The Manhattan Street Corners (http://www.newyorkinplainsight.com). He is currently working on a book, The Look of the City, to show what it is that makes Manhattan look the way it does.
For further reading
The two classic studies of the Manhattan Grid are Edward K. Spann’s “The Greatest Grid: the New York Plan of 1811″ in Two Centuries of American Planning, Daniel Schaffer, ed. (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988; pp. 11-39), and Peter Marcuse’s “The Grid as city plan: New York City and laissez-faire planning in the nineteenth century” (in Planning Perspectives 2 1987: 287-310).
Reuben Rose-Redwood’s Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan (State College: Pennsylvania State College Master’s Thesis, 2002) offers a wide ranging epistemologically oriented analysis of the grid, and Rebecca Shanor’s The City That Never Was: Two Hundred Years of Fantastic and Fascinating Plans That Might Have Changed the Face of New York City (New York: Viking-Penguin, 1988) provides a rich account of the subsequent history of the grid.
More readily accessible accounts of the genesis of the grid are in Edwin Burrows’ & Mike Wallace’s Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999: 419-422), and, most recently, two articles by Sam Roberts in the New York Times (March 21, 2011): “200th Birthday for the Map that Made New York” and “No Hero in 1811, Street Grid’s Father Was Showered With Produce, Not Praise.”
Extensive primary source materials are to be found in the Minutes of the Common Council of the City of New York 1784-1831, Everett A. Peterson, ed. (New York: City of New York, 1917); the Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York, David T. Valentine, ed. (New York: Common Council, annually 1841–1870); and I. N. Phelps Stokes’ indispensable The Iconography of Manhattan Island 1498-1909 (New York: Robert H. Dodd, six volumes 1915-1928).