The New York City grid is often understood as a foundational system of land subdivision and cadastral allotment. Accordingly, the grid divides Manhattan into a highly regularized system of rectangular shaped blocks, subdivided into lots, making standard (and stackable) units of real estate available for urban development. The grid accomplishes the city’s apportionment through its collection of more frequently spaced and narrower east-west cross-streets and less frequently spaced and wider north-south avenues — each serving as partition and demarcation between the blocks with their nested lots. Indeed, conceptualizing the grid as a system of subdivided blocks highlights its underlying cadastral logic. Previous posts (#4 and #6) have addressed two myths following from this line of reasoning, specifically the extent to which block sizes determined lot sizes, and how the relentless regularity of blocks and lots contributed to rampant real estate speculation.
Indeed, the orderly differentiation between the north-south avenues and the east-west cross-streets derives from one key dimension: the elongated, rectangular blocks of the gridded city. It stands in stark contrast to the pre-grid pattern of multiple, dense street systems on the island’s southern portion, where the distances between intersections (block dimensions) are much shorter and more irregular. Our mapping of the network of intersections reveals two profoundly different landscapes of connectivity: one on the grid plan and one before it. Taking our argument further, insofar as connectivity is a morphological prerequisite for accessibility, reinterpreting the grid’s geometry as a nodal network of connections opens alternative lines of inquiry surrounding access to the spaces of the city.
Indeed, what the Manhattan grid’s dimensions did to formalize, regularize, and make consistent a topography of accessibility derived from street connectivity. It created peaks of highly accessible points along the north-south avenues, separated by valleys of limited reach at the blocks’ midpoints along the east-west cross-streets. Given all that we know of the real estate and land use development of Manhattan in the 19th century and since, this map invites inferences about the locational patterns of commerce, industry, and residence, and above all, retail. Widely understood as a system of block and lot subdivisions, the grid has long been attributed agency as having structured and fueled real estate development. Reconceptualized as a system of street connectivity, it is now suspected of having incentivized land use allocation. Toward that, how its morphology specifically shaped land uses is the topic of our next post.
Gergely Baics is Associate Professor of History and Urban Studies at Barnard College, Columbia University. Leah Meisterlin is Assistant Professor in Urban Planning at Columbia University. They are the authors of "Old Maps, New Tricks: Digital Archaeology in the 19th-Century City" and “The Grid as Algorithm for Land Use: A Reappraisal of the 1811 Manhattan Grid.”