By Jason M. Barr
with Gerard Koeppel
In the two centuries since its creation, the grid plan has had no shortage of critics. Many, for example, have bemoaned its relentless monotony, its disregard for Manhattan’s topography and its lack of grand boulevards. In many respects, the grid has become a kind of Rorschach blot for the failures of 19th century New York to provide a cleaner, more efficient, and greener city. Detractors often see the plan as the cause or catalyst of the larger problems that New York confronted from rapid economic growth, massive immigration and poverty, and a municipal government that was, more or less, unable and unwilling to effectively handle these issues.
One strain of thought has to do with the size of the blocks and lots. As discussed in a previous post, architect Ernest Flagg, writing in 1894, has helped to fuel the (false) impression that the ubiquitous 25 x 100 square foot lot was a result of the grid plan, which, he argued, promoted over-crowding in the tenements.
Fredrick Law Olmstead, co-designer of Central Park, was also a fierce critic of the plan. In 1876, along with John James Robertson Croes, he lodged a complaint similar to that of Flagg’s:
[S]ome two thousand blocks were provided, each theoretically 200 feet wide, no more, no less…. Decent, wholesome, tidy dwellings for people who are struggling to maintain an honorable independence are more to be desired in a city than great churches, convents or colleges. They are sadly wanting in New York, and why?….The rigid uniformity of the system of 1807 requires that no building lot shall be more than 100 feet in depth, none less. The clerk or mechanic and his young family, wishing to live modestly in a house by themselves, without servants, is provided for in this respect no otherwise than the wealthy merchant….
More broadly, the real problem of hyper-density was due to the fact that Manhattan is a long, narrow island and the immigrant enclaves tended to cluster just north of downtown, the heart of New York’s economy. As millions of poor Europeans flooded into the city, they saw the ethnic enclaves as their places of refuge. It was the island itself, not the grid plan, that hemmed them in.
As discussed in an earlier post, in 1808, John Randel Jr. was given his charge as chief surveyor for the Commissioners. Taking his job seriously, he traipsed through the forests and farms to map mostly-rural Manhattan into a future city; property owners were not happy. They saw Randel as a trespasser and harbinger of urbanizing doom; he was repeatedly threatened and sometimes arrested in the effort to thwart him.
About a half century later, Randel had the opportunity to reflect that, “This Plan of the Commissioners, thus objected to before its completion, is now the pride and boast of the city; and the facilities afforded by it for buying, selling and improving real estate… must have greatly enhanced [its] value.” And of those locals who harassed him in his surveying efforts, many of their descendants “have been made rich thereby.”
Yet some have complained that the plan was “too successful” — that by standardizing the land it allowed for rampant speculation. A typical critique is given by urban historian John Reps, who writes, “As an aid to speculation the commissioners’ plan was perhaps unequaled, but only on this ground can it be justifiably called a great achievement.”
But the belief that the grid plan created a speculative frenzy is a bit like blaming the automobile for traffic congestion. The plan was the means by which people could develop the land; the mapping of Manhattan, as an objective of economic and social needs, was not the cause of the rampant land trading. Platting schemes, in the U.S., no matter their form, frequently were followed by a speculative bubble because of the excitement they engendered, offering hopeful pathways to the future.
Speculative bubbles were not unique to New York. In the 1830s, Chicago’s land values soared after the land was platted and plans for a canal to link Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River were established. A land boom occurred in Florida in the 1920s sparked by the rising interest in developing the state for tourism and vacation homes.
Reviewing the long sweep of real estate booms and busts in America’s history has lead economist Edward Glaeser to conclude:
The first and most obvious lesson of this history is that America has always been a nation of real estate speculators. Real estate speculation was an integral part of the “winning of the west,” the construction of our cities, and the transformation of American home life, from tenements to mini-mansions.
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.