Myth #1: “Randel’s Matrix”

By Gerard Koeppel with Jason M. Barr

The Manhattan Street Grid Plan: Misconceptions and Corrections (series)

Popular wisdom has it that the grid plan was created by John Randel, Jr. In truth, it is not Randel’s plan but the plan decided on by the commission charged with coming up with a future street plan for the expanding city. The commissioners employed Randel as their chief surveyor to make surveys as they directed, then to draw the map of the plan. Further, the great grid plan didn’t even originate with the commissioners: they stole it from a smaller, mostly unrealized land-parceling plan from two decades earlier.

In 2011, a New York Timesheadline proclaimed surveyor John Randel, Jr. the “Street Grid’s Father.” In 2012, the Times’ Sam Roberts called the vast rectilinear Manhattan street grid “Randel’s Matrix.” In 2013, Roberts’ Times review of a Randel biography by Marguerite Holloway asked: “Gridlock? Blame John Randel, Jr.” Neither the Times articles, nor for that matter Holloway’s book, said who actually fathered the grid, whose matrix it really is, and who is to be blamed for our gridlocked island. It isn’t John Randel.
The responsible party is the trio who hired Randel: the venerable, nationally prominent, city-selected, and state-appointed commissioners tasked in 1807 to come up with a plan by 1811. They gave Randel, a twenty-year-old Albany provincial, his marching orders. Randel was the neophyte protégé of one commissioner, Simeon DeWitt, longtime New York State surveyor-general and George Washington’s war mapmaker. Randel did only what commissioners DeWitt, largest New Jersey landowner John Rutherfurd, and Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, the commission’s domineering de facto head, told him to do. Morris’s letters and diary, Randel’s dutiful field notes, and other primary sources make clear who was taking direction from whom.

In 2016, a long piece in the New Yorker about the grid and Central Park did briefly mention that there was a commission but neglected to name the commissioners and suggested that Randel was in charge of their operations from the beginning. In fact, not only was he not in charge, Randel wasn’t even there at the beginning. The commissioners hired another surveyor for the first year, and only after he proved dilatory did DeWitt send young Randel down the Hudson, in 1808. For the next three years, Randel surveyed as instructed by the commissioners.

Which is not to say that the commissioners provided much instruction. In the eight-month (April-November) surveying seasons of 1808, 1809, and 1810, Randel actually did no surveying for a rectilinear grid. Mostly he surveyed existing country roads and, in order to have a base map, the island generally. This is because not until December 1810 did the commissioners decide what they wanted to do, which was nothing grander than expand a prior plan of now-obscure surveyor Casimir Goerck.

Location of the Commons as overlaid on the “British Headquarters” map of 1782. Image courtesy of Richard Howe.

Location of the Commons as overlaid on the “British Headquarters” map of 1782. Image courtesy of Richard Howe.

Starting in 1785, the city government asked Goerck, the Polish-born husband of Elizabeth Roosevelt, of the prosperous Dutch New York family that would spawn two presidents, to lay out into lots the 1,300 acres of lousy land the city owned in the middle of Manhattan. These were the so-called “Common Lands,” the “waste, vacant, unpatented, and unappropriated” lands first granted by Dutch provincial authority to the government of New Amsterdam in 1658. The Common Lands, roughly between what are now 23rd to 90th streets from 3rd to 7th avenues, were alternately rocky and swampy, choked with tangled, dense brush, and isolated from the small city at the southern tip of the island and from the island’s shores. The cash-strapped city thought there might be money in sales of those lands. Accordingly, Goerck in 1785 and then in an improved manner in 1796 divided the Common Lands up into hundreds of roughly five-acre lots. Each measured 260 feet north-south and 920 feet east-west, in two main stacks, delineated by three 100-foot-wide north-south routes -- East, Middle, and West roads—and sixty-foot-wide east-west routes to be claimed from the top sixty feet of every lot at some unspecified time. If these numbers sound familiar, you know your grid geography.[1]

Sales of the remote Common Lands lots were few. And none of the sixty-foot cross routes and only portions of the East, Middle, and West roads materialized. But a future was there to be seized for the grid plan of 1811. The commissioners’ put their Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth avenues precisely where Goerck placed his East, Middle, and West roads, and the commissioners’ sixty-foot wide streets are precisely where Goerck envisioned his cross-routes and far beyond. So much for any originality or inspired greatness.

Think of our iconic island-spread rectilinear grid not as “Randel’s matrix” or even the so-called “Commissioners’ Plan,” but simply Goerck’s unfulfilled Common Lands plan writ as large as the island’s shores. Not that the commissioners (or Randel) ever acknowledged the appropriation, as we’ll see in the next post.

Meanwhile, Randel does get credit for turning the bare bones plan of 1811 into workable form. He spent most of the ensuing decade employed by the city (not the state commission which had ended) doing detailed surveys of Manhattan to produce a set of 92 exquisite maps. The so-called “Farm Maps” showed precisely how the future streets of the commissioners’ grid would lay on the land, a land of thousands of existing property lines, rocky ridges, swampy bogs, streams, ponds, and other topographical and natural features that the grid would sweep away.

Sadly for the exacting surveyor, it was pretty much downhill from Manhattan. As the decades wore on, lawsuits over real and perceived insults overwhelmed diminishing job offers. Randel died in 1865 broke, broken, and forgotten... except by those who think he is, and those who know he isn’t, the man who made the matrix.

Gerard Koeppel is the author of City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, Water for Gotham: A History, and Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire. Jason M. Barr is an Associate Professor of Economics at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author most recently of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers.

[1] Independent historian Richard Howe’s excellent, detailed analysis of Goerck’s work appeared on this blog in 2015.