Myth #8: Static Manhattan, Part II

By Gerard Koeppel and Jason M. Barr

Today, the image of Manhattan is as a vertical city — a place that, as E. B. White saw it, “has been compelled to expand skyward because of the absence of any other direction in which to grow.” With our eyes focused skyward, we think little of the city’s horizontal expansion, as the grid plan seemingly set Manhattan in stone, literally and figuratively.

Beyond urban Manhattan’s vertical expansion is the enlargement of the island itself during nearly four centuries of continuous recorded human habitation. How much Manhattan has grown depends on who’s measuring and when. In 1626, the Dutch West India Company believed its sixty guilders (mythically equal to twenty-four of the dollars that didn’t exist then) had bought them an island of 11,000 morgens, or 22,000 acres. Not that the Lenape locals, who used the island mostly as a seasonal hunting ground, were counting, but they beat the Dutch by double: modern estimates put early 1600s Manhattan at about 11,350 acres. The most generous measure of Manhattan today is about 14,600 acres, which makes for an increase of over 25 percent.

Figure 1: The topographical map of Manhattan created by Egbert Viele in 1865 shows the expansion of Manhattan through landfill. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/Viele_Map_1865.jpg.

Figure 1: The topographical map of Manhattan created by Egbert Viele in 1865 shows the expansion of Manhattan through landfill. Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a3/Viele_Map_1865.jpg.

Manhattan has grown larger by a quarter not via a natural upward tectonic thrust from its surrounding waters but by the much more mundane process of landfill, done by many generations of Manhattan dwellers who’ve wanted more Manhattan. It started with the Dutch filling in swampy shores and continued with English and Americans generations making dock basins and then filling them in to make new land appended by new dock spaces further into the rivers (see Figure 1).

Figure 2: Kennard Thomson’s vision of an expanded Manhattan, in 1913. Source: New York Times, August 31, 1913, Magazine Section, page 1.

Figure 2: Kennard Thomson’s vision of an expanded Manhattan, in 1913. Source: New York Times, August 31, 1913, Magazine Section, page 1.

Enlargement has proceeded in recent decades with the World Financial Center and Battery Park City rising on made land to satisfy demands for more work and living space; the western half of the Word Trade Center site was originally made land created in the 18th century. In what are now environmentally sensitive times, it seems unlikely that more large accretions to Manhattan’s land area will follow.

Even building a small artificial island of park and performance space between two abandoned Hudson River shipping piers at 14th Street has proved a lengthening battle with no certain conclusion. The proposed 2.4-acre “Diller Island” (named for entertainment mogul Barry Diller who would substantially fund it) is puny compared with other earlier failed plans for additions to Manhattan.

In the 1860s, engineer-surveyor James E. Serrell proposed and vigorously promoted his plan to landfill the East River from 125th down to 14th Street. This would have created 2,500 new acres of “Manhattan” street grid into the western portions of Queens where a linear New East River would connect Long Island Sound with the lower portion of the existing East River. The concept of enlarging Manhattan eastward was remarkable and remained no more than that until other engineers with large ideas expanded on (but never credited) Serrell’s vision a half-century later.

Beginning in 1913, building engineer T(homas) Kennard Thomson proposed filling the entire East River from Hell Gate to beyond the southern tip of Manhattan (expanding Brooklyn into the harbor) and running a new canal-like East River from Flushing Bay to Jamaica Bay. Thomson’s 1913 plan (Figure 2), headlined the August 31st magazine section of the New York Times.

Figure 3: Kennard Thomson’s expanded vision of an expanded Manhattan, 1926. Source: New York Times, August 2, 1926, page 6.

Figure 3: Kennard Thomson’s expanded vision of an expanded Manhattan, 1926. Source: New York Times, August 2, 1926, page 6.

The plan, in varying forms, persisted over time, duly featured in the Times: a “Plan to Extend Manhattan Island Six Miles Down the Bay Discussed by Its Promoters” (October 30, 1921); “Can City Be Extended Nine Miles into the Bay?” (June 24, 1923); “Tells of Converts to Reclaiming Bay. Engineer Revives Project to Add Nine Square Miles to Manhattan. Sees Obstacles Vanishing” (August 2, 1926). (See Figure 3.)

Obstacles were hardly vanishing, but competition was increasing. Through the mid-1920s the city’s chief traffic engineer (and photogenic Lucky Strike spokesmodel) John A. Harriss had his own well-publicized ideas. He proposed damming the East River (at Hell Gate and the Williamsburg Bridge), draining it, roofing it over, and creating a great boulevard of multiple lanes (for express, local, and pedestrian traffic) and such “majestic structures” as a new city hall, arts complex, schools, playgrounds, and more, with a replacement river to the east. “New York has been, in a sense, a laboratory in which such problems have been worked out,” Harriss wrote; “We must continue to be progressive if we are to maintain this position.

Needless to say, such grand illusions faded away with the Depression and World War II, though they never quite died. In 2011, The Center for Urban Real Estate at Columbia University proposed a land bridge from the Battery to Governor’s island (see Figure 4). That concept, like those of the previous century, has gone nowhere, but as sea levels rise from climate change the idea of enlarging Manhattan — not for new business and living space but to preserve what already exists — may gain traction. Or not.

Meanwhile, the grid remains, even extending its fingers — 7th Avenue south through Greenwich Village in the 1910s, 6th Avenue through in the 1920s — until the buck stopped in the 1950s, when urban activists prevented Robert Moses from running 5th Avenue through Washington Square. Broader opposition eventually defeated his Mid-Manhattan Expressway, a six-lane elevated highway along 30th Street to link the Lincoln and Queens Midtown tunnels.

If Gouverneur Morris and his fellow grid makers are somehow aware of how their plan has panned out, they would see that it has managed to remain dominant and resilient during two centuries of city-making. As Vladimir’s cousin Nicolas Nabokov observed with a bit more edge than E. B. White, Manhattan endures as “a kind of immense vertical mess set upon a square horizontal order.

Figure 4: 2011 plan for expanded Manhattan. Image source: http://ritholtz.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/science1.png.

Figure 4: 2011 plan for expanded Manhattan. Image source: http://ritholtz.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/11/science1.png.

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 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.

This is the final installment of the authors' series The Manhattan Street Grid: Misconceptions and Corrections.