A few rural villages, such as Manhattanville, were also scattered throughout. A military map of Harlem Heights with a landscape vignette, drawn in 1814, depicts a bucolic landscape as if taken from a Washington Irving story. A curious explorer would have found Manhattan’s topography an undulating series of hills, valleys, streams, and wetlands.
When the grid plan was being conceived, it was a visionary notion that someday nearly the entire island would be transformed into a global metropolis. There were no automobiles or railroads, and steamboats were still a strange curiosity. The average person was dependent on her own two feet or a horse for transportation. Visiting a friend in Harlem Heights from the city was a three-hour journey.
A drawing of newly formed Second Avenue at newly formed 42nd Street in 1861 illustrates this transformation (see below). The avenue itself appears as a kind of urban gorge, enclosed by steep hills of bedrock. On the east side, a lone, elegant house with porch and balcony is perched some 20 feet atop an extrusion of schist. A temporary wooden staircase strapped to the rock allows access to the home. The owner was clearly a holdout, unwilling or unhurried to level his property.
The image has helped fuel the conventional wisdom that the grid plan was a great leveler, tearing the city down to a uniform, flat topography. But to what extent is this true? We can say for sure that the ecology changed. The oaks, pines, and tulip trees have been replaced by a brick and steel forest. All wetlands and streams were buried or drained. Wild animals, from beaver to mountain lion, are long departed.
But how much of this elevation was changed? For this, we can look at a map (below) which shows the changes in elevation between 1609 and 2012 for each block on Manhattan. The red regions show where the land was raised more than ten feet. The blue areas are where the land was lowered more than 10 feet. The figure shows that in actuality the land changes were not as dramatic as we have come to believe.
Jason M. Barr is a Professor of Economics at Rutgers University-Newark, and the author most recently of Building the Skyline: The Birth and Growth of Manhattan’s Skyscrapers. 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.
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