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.
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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).
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.
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.”
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.”
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.