City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

By Gerard Koeppel

If a picture is worth eighty thousand words or so, one image captures what this book is about. And if every picture tells a story, this image tells two...


The photograph was taken during the winter of 1882–83 from the roof of a millionaire brewer’s new brownstone mansion at the crest of Prospect Hill, on the east side of Fourth Avenue between 93rd and 94th Streets. This was an evolving neighborhood of New York City, which then consisted of Manhattan only (the boroughs came a little bit later). The avenue and streets on this segment of the island had been laid in the 1850s, but development had been stalled by the loud and dirty locomotives of the New York and Harlem Railroad, running since the 1830s on surface tracks through what was then and for decades after countryside. Only after the tracks were sunk belowground and covered during the mid-1870s did scattered squatter shacks, small factories, and aging farms give way to merchant piles and developer dreams. The broad and freshly landscaped boulevard over the tracks would soon be renamed Park Avenue. And the hill’s high prospects would soon transition from referencing the natural view to reflecting broader social expectation: Carnegie Hill, appropriating the name of the neighborhood’s richest new millionaire.

The image that tells this book’s stories, an albumen print by Bavarian-born Peter Baab, looks south from beer baron George Ehret’s gabled roof at a city rising from the distance. On the right is the new avenue, airy and clean, visible for several blocks as it recedes into the sooty background; a scattered few of what will be solid walls of imposing apartment buildings front the avenue. Running across the middle ground is 92nd Street, intersecting the avenue as streets generally meet avenues on Manhattan: at a right angle. On the south side of the street, facing the camera, is a varied cast of structures representing the local past and future. From the corner stretches a new three-story brick row house with a half dozen entrance stoops greeting fresh sidewalk: a herald of comfortable multifamily living. Mid-block is the past: four modest but welltended whitewashed wooden houses, each with a fenced yard and covered porch. The houses are relics: new construction in wood will be banned on Manhattan in a few years. Reaching high above the attic of the leftmost house is a side-yard tree, possibly the oldest thing in the image.

Only half of the house with the big tree is visible. The rest is obscured by a new neighbor across the street, with its back to the camera: the first of what promises to be a row of attached threestory brick apartment buildings. We know there will be more of them because this one has no windows on its western elevation, which will soon enough be mated with the eastern wall of the next new building very much like it.

And yet most of the space captured by the photographer is empty. The whole space from 92nd Street in the middle ground to 93rd Street just under the camera’s view in the foreground, and from the avenue on the right to the new building at the left of the frame, is an expanse of open ground, as yet unimproved real estate. We know the void’s days are numbered. Just as it will be filled from the north side of 92nd Street with brick buildings, much of the space along the avenue between 92nd and 93rd is ready to be filled with something even bigger: a large, deep rectangular pit has been excavated for the foundation of what will be a major Park Avenue address (now 1175 Park). Spied in the left foreground is the shadow of the first in a series of buildings that will fill any remaining space along 93rd Street.

At first glance, the image is no different from any that might have been captured of dozens of similar rectangular blocks in the city rapidly filling northward. Aside from the obvious visual juxtapositions of old and new, of empty and filled space, the chief value of the image for many observers is local and historic, or merely archival: information for a catalogue of urban development, land largely cleared of nature and prepared for permanent dense occupation. Seeking deeper meaning, some observers might focus on the redundant geometry, the thickening assemblage of rectangular shapes in different planes: the blocks of streets, the block-shaped new buildings, the rectangular building walls. The dominant new shape on the land will be replicated repeatedly in the air above it. In fact, the built forms are such a dominant theme that when this image has been occasionally reproduced over the generations, the lower half—the “empty” space—is usually cropped out. But this space too tells a story.

The main story of this book is the creation and long life of the iconic street grid of New York: the rectilinear plane of many parallel streets crossed at right angles by relatively few parallel avenues laid on the map of rural Manhattan two centuries ago that defined the urbanism of a rising city and nation. The grid was ordained in 1811 by a state commission, appointed in 1807, of three men—headstrong Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, longtime New York State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt, and major area landowner John Rutherfurd. Their grid, which started far south at the then suburban edge of the settled city in the 1810s, arrives before our eyes in the shot from Ehret’s roof three-quarters of the century later.

The other story of this book is in the cropping of Baab’s shot. In that empty space that reproductions usually edit out, the photographer—inadvertently, unwittingly—captured two faint but evident footpaths, formed in the dirt. One path runs from mid-block on 92nd Street through the center of the empty space toward the corner of 93rd Street and the avenue. The other path runs from the corner of 92nd and the avenue to mid-block on 93rd. The paths cross, not by design but by choice. No people were on the paths when the photographer took his shot, but in the compacted earth unknown New Yorkers had clearly marked a deep desire of living things: to reach their destination by the shortest possible route. Not by two lines around a right-angled corner, but by a direct path.

In that empty space and the urbanizing space framing it are the mystical and the magical: the organic, free, mystic movements through what remained of nature, and the autocratic, abstract, magical geometrics of the planned city. “Magical peoples, because of their rational spirit, arrive at geometric city formations,” observed urban planner (and Nazi exile) Ludwig Hilberseimer in 1944, while “mystic peoples, in accordance with their principle of growth, arrive at organic city formulations.” Geometric and organic formulations don’t take precedence or priority over each other. They exist, thought Hilberseimer, as contemporary impulses, in different groups of people and within each person. Any city is made up of magic peasants and mystic nomads, willingly urbanized and willfully roaming. Manhattan, though, with more right angles than anywhere else in the world, is a profoundly magical place. It will be, for better or worse, until the rectilinear street grid is replaced, if it ever is.

In the 1800s, New York’s grid, and the hundreds of thousands of rectangular lots, building forms, and interior spaces it inevitably produced, gave a sense of stability and rational purpose to a young city evolving into greatness. The pathways in the packed earth of verging Carnegie Hill are evidence of something more. As the emptiness is gradually filled with brick and masonry buildings, the paths will disappear, and the people who used them will experience loss. Though the shortest distance between two points is not around a right-angled corner, New Yorkers must navigate thousands. Perhaps this is what makes New Yorkers run, rushing from loss toward gain, around corners of street walls that protect private space from the public sphere.

The grid favors private interest over public convenience. The right angle values its interior space. Diagonal or nonlinear routes— dirt footpaths through an empty lot, curvilinear forms traversing natural topography—celebrate public space, the civic interest. A rectilinear-grid dweller moving from one point to another that is not on the same axis is obliged to go out of his or her way, to turn corners. Axial streets are urban moats guarding rectangular castles framing interior lives; these streets are pedestrian, common, subordinate. Diagonal or curving streets force private space into accommodations of shape; diagonals and curves make urban life a promenade, a public display, beautiful, grand, mysterious, mystic. This is not Manhattan.

It is often said that the street grid created by the commission of three respectable gentlemen represented the death of Old New York and the birth of the modern city—Old New York being the quaint, low-slung, but notoriously dirty and disorderly place of jumbled colonial and post-Revolutionary streets that sprouted from the southern tip of the island for nearly two centuries, modern New York being the rigid plain of rectangular blocks that brought order going forward. But death and loss are not the same thing. Something dead can’t live again; something lost can be found. Someday, Manhattan may look different.

This book tells mostly of the creation and long life of the great grid, “the greatest grid” to some, who generally don’t specify whether the superlative relates to quality or merely quantity. Weaving through this narrative of the great grid, like a New Yorker navigating Midtown at midday, is the lingering sense of loss: lost time, lost place, lost pathways in the packed earth, earth that’s there beneath the asphalt, brick, concrete, steel, glass, and plastics, earth that of course will outlast all its human burdens.

Gerard Koeppel is a former journalist and independent scholar. You can read about his work here. This post is an excerpt from his new book, City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, reprinted courtesy of Da Capo Press.