Myth # 7: Static Manhattan, Part I

By Jason M. Barr and Gerard Koeppel

Today, Manhattan is synonymous with its Cartesian configuration. Unlike a standard mathematical graph, which starts at the intersection of zero and zero, Manhattan “begins” at First Street and First Avenue (the “nexus of the universe,” according to Seinfeld’s Kramer). From there, it’s a simple counting exercise north or west. The integer-based order creates the perception that Manhattan is a frozen lattice.

But, when one starts to look a bit deeper, we can see that the grid plan has, in fact, shown significant evolution, both in the early phases of its implementation, and throughout the 20th century. Though the pace of change is slow, a “helicopter tour” through time reveals these cumulative modifications.

Central Park

Central Park, the saving grace of densely gridded Manhattan, was beyond the comprehension of the Commissioners who felt little need in 1811 to provide open space in their plan:

It may to many be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health. Certainly if the city of New York was destined to stand on the side of a small stream such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful. But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous.

In fact, the largest space the Commissioners envisioned was a military parade ground from 23rd to 34th Streets, between Third and Seventh Avenues. As years went by and development approached the area, the parade ground was gradually legislated away into city streets, leaving only Madison Square, the small park completed in 1847.
As immigration swelled, and the port and industry thrived, it was clear that the embracing sea arms were not so profound. Calls for a large “people’s park” began in the 1840s. In 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux were chosen to design it. And the rest, of course, is urban landscape history.

Lexington and Madison Avenues

The original grid plan had avenues moving west from First to Twelfth (and east from A through D where the island bulged into the East River below 14th Street). As sections of streets and avenues were opened under the plan, many New Yorkers felt the street blocks were too long, especially the 920-foot blocks between the avenues from Third to Sixth.

One influential developer who felt this keenly — and saw an opportunity — was Samuel Ruggles, who in 1831purchased a cluster of country lots east of Fourth Avenue (now Park Avenue South) between the future 19th and 23rd Streets. To help make his Gramercy Park development more accessible, he successfully petitioned the city for a new avenue, between Third and Fourth, thus giving birth to Lexington Avenue north of the private park and Irving Plaza south of it. Then, with more public spirit than personal interest, Ruggles advocated for a new avenue between Fourth and Fifth, which became Madison Avenue in 1836.

20th Century Changes

Another set of grid plan changes is due to the two great railroads companies that dominated travel to and from the city starting in the later 19th century: the Pennsylvania Railroad (PRR), which controlled much of the travel west and south, and the New York Central, which dominated the routes north and northeast.

Both of them, for different reasons, began to construct their grand terminals and electrify their tracks. In 1902, the “Pennsy” finally decided to build tunnels to connect Manhattan to New Jersey so trains could enter directly into the island, rather than ending in Jersey City, with passengers ferried across the river.

Simultaneously, the New York Central was forced to reconstruct it tracks and depot on East 42nd Street after a tragic tunnel fire in 1902 at 56th Street. For both railroads, the process required the right of eminent domain to acquire lots and blend blocks together to create not only iconic railroad stations but also new neighborhoods (see below).

Plan for Grand Central Station and “Terminal City.” Source: https://untappedcities-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/terminal-city1.jpg

Plan for Grand Central Station and “Terminal City.” Source: https://untappedcities-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/terminal-city1.jpg

While Grand Central Station was grander than its predecessor, Grand Central Depot, it was the changes north of the station that were perhaps even larger, with the opening of Fourth (now Park) Avenue from 45th to 57th Streets. Previously, the “avenue” was open track lines, with trains bellowing smoke and soot as they moved in and out of the city.

The 140-foot-wide avenue became a blank slate for developers, particularly for office towers, hotels, and upscale apartment buildings. The railroad company invested heavily in providing the infrastructure necessary for this development, by creating a substructure of steel and masonry piers, rising from the bedrock, in order to support the new buildings over the tracks (see below).

Penn Station area before and after construction. Source: Atlases from NYPL digital collections. Image created by William Barr.

Penn Station area before and after construction. Source: Atlases from NYPL digital collections. Image created by William Barr.

Interestingly, the PRR never closed their tracks behind Penn Station. Rather, New York would need to wait a century for a new “Terminal City” to rise on the west side, what is today’s Hudson Yards.

We can enumerate many other large-scale, grid-altering projects that occurred over the 20th century, including the creation of the 22-acre Rockefeller Center built in the 1930s, and the 16-acre Lincoln Center campus in the 1950s.
Arguably, however, the largest impact on the grid has been from the construction of numerous public housing projects (and private ones, such as Stuyvesant Town and Cooper Village) throughout the island. Take the case of the Lillian Wald Houses (see below), for which construction began in 1949, on the Lower East Side. What was once a dense tenement and industrial neighborhood was converted to a vast tower-in-the-park mega complex — perhaps representing a whole-scale rejection of the grid all-together. Federal funds for “slum clearance” were used to create a kind of urban tabula rasa with the hopes of providing clean and affordable housing for thousands of residents.

Area of Lower East Side before and after the constructing of the Lillian Wald Houses. Source: Atlases from NYPL digital collections. Image created by William Barr.

Area of Lower East Side before and after the constructing of the Lillian Wald Houses. Source: Atlases from NYPL digital collections. Image created by William Barr.

In general, though, how extensive have been the changes to grid plan? To give an answer to this question, we present a map, which codes alterations in the city blocks that occurred between 1900, just when the city was finalizing the grid’s implementation, and today. The red areas represent those changes, demonstrating a significant evolution in the grid’s configuration (see below).

Changes in Manhattan from 1900 to 2017. The red polygons are blocks that have had their configurations changed in the interval, including landfill around the shorelines. The pre-grid plan area changes are also included. Source: Map by Eon Kim.

Changes in Manhattan from 1900 to 2017. The red polygons are blocks that have had their configurations changed in the interval, including landfill around the shorelines. The pre-grid plan area changes are also included. Source: Map by Eon Kim.

In summary, after 200 years of alterations, it would be more accurate to say that the grid plan was always just that — a plan — whose actual implementation would evolve as the times changed. And while the changes thus far have been relatively small scale, they have suggested to planners grander visions of wiping clean Manhattan’s Cartesian checkerboard; we turn to these in our next post.


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.