By Richard Howe
The men whom the New York State Legislature commissioned in 1807 to lay out the streets and roads in the City of New York were not city planners. Only one of the three, Simeon De Witt, had any relevant expertise: he had been trained as a surveyor and held the office of Surveyor General of the State of New York. John Rutherford came from a merchant family in the city and had been a U.S. senator. Presumably he was to represent the city’s merchant interests. Gouverneur Morris was the most prominent of the three: a justly celebrated and respected patriot, he had been a delegate to the Continental Congress, a signer of the Articles of Confederation, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a member of the committee that drafted the constitution, and a U.S. senator. In 1810, while still serving on the streets and roads commission, he became chairman of the Erie Canal commission as well. What he brought to the commission was clout. The streets and roads commissioners were, in short, political appointees whose job was in the first place a political one: they were to ensure that the city’s merchant interests prevailed over the opposing interests of the big landowners as the city grew northwards up the island of Manhattan.
If the commissioners were not city planners, neither were they visionaries, at least not on the scale of DeWitt Clinton and his as yet unbuilt and unfunded Erie Canal. But they were by no means unmindful of their responsibility. They understood that their plan, whatever it turned out to be, could shape the city for decades, even centuries to come, and therefore insofar as possible should meet the needs of the city and its development for decades and centuries to come also. So the commissioners must have had some idea of what their future city would be like, though they had little to say about it in their Remarks to their plan. They mentioned that the city would at some point outgrow its current water supply. It might be attacked again, as it had been in 1776. It would become a city of the first rank, possibly reaching a population of 400,000 in fifty years, i.e., by 1861, by which time its built up area might extend solidly up to their plan’s 34th Street. Its northward growth might eventually meet the southward growth of the village of Harlem, but the rest of the island above the Harlem plain, i.e., above 155th Street would still be sparsely populated even after 200 years or more -— “centuries” -- and would remain that way “in the course of ages.”
Why didn’t the commissioners say more about their rationale for the plan? It could be argued that after years of vociferous objections by the city’s landowners to all such plans, the commissioners may have felt that the less said the better: the fewer specifics their opponents could latch onto and contest, the less resistance the plan would meet. So expedience in this respect may account in part for their silence. Expedience may also partly account for their choice of a grid: street grids were commonplace, and it is in the nature of the beast -- the human animal -- to choose the commonplace over the uncommon, the familiar over the unfamiliar, particularly when the stakes are high, as they are when big properties are involved, like those on the island of Manhattan above the built-up part of the city in the 19th century.
And then there is the lurking suspicion that the plan as drawn—it was actually just a big map—stretching a street grid across the whole of the island, from river to river and from just above the existing city up to a planned 155th Street, with no regard for the island’s shoreline, terrain, watercourses, and wetlands, was also a matter of expedience, but of a different kind. After so many delays occasioned by the landowners’ lawsuits and even violence against the surveyors trying to get the island properly surveyed since they were first commissioned by the legislature in 1807, by November, 1810, the commissioners had simply run out of time: the April 3, 1811, deadline set for them by the legislature was fast approaching. The best they could do would be to meet the letter if not fully the spirit of their commission, as Gouverneur Morris wrote to New York Mayor Radcliff on November 29, 1810. With only a few months to go, and with a huge map yet to be drawn—by hand, in three copies -- there simply wasn’t enough time left for the commissioners to take into account the island’s shorelines, terrain, watercourses, and wetlands. And it was taken for granted from the outset that the plan would not respect the property lines of the landowners—indeed if anything was the commission’s not very well hidden agenda, that was it. The plan the commissioners submitted was a bureaucratic expedient, so to speak a quick and dirty, done under the pressure of a deadline that had been carved in stone before anyone knew how difficult and time-consuming the planning process would turn out to be.
The plan that the commissioners submitted in 1811 may not have fully carried out the spirit of their commission, but it is reasonable to assume that it fairly represents of their thinking about what the future city would be like. That the city of the future is built in the present, using the materials, methods, and tools of the present was as true in 1811 as it is today. Such things tend to change only very slowly, so what carpenters, masons, roofers, plasterers, or glaziers are using at any given point in time is generally not much different from what was used by their predecessors. Absent any radical changes in materials, methods, and tools, the city of the future will closely resemble the city of the present. The commissioners’ future city of New York would be the 1811 city of New York that they knew, only bigger, much bigger.
That city would not only be bigger, on the commissioners’ conjectures it would be twice as crowded in 1861 as it was in 1811: 400,000 people in the six square miles below 34th Street amounts to just over 100 people per acre, as against just over 50 people per acre in the built up part of the city below North (now Houston) Street in 1811. The future city would still be a major seaport, and transportation to and from it would still be a matter of wind and sail, though Fulton’s steamship had already given a glimpse of the future in 1809. Transportation within the city would be, as always, horse, mule, or ox powered. New York in 1811 was a predominantly wooden city, and it was only to be expected that most buildings in the future city, especially the smaller ones, would also be built of wood, except for the now mandatory masonry hearths and chimneys. Some buildings would have brick facades, and some stone, but behind their elegant facades they would still be timber framed. Most of the buildings in the city would be no more than about 25 feet wide—a width dictated by the tensile strength of timber joists supported only at their ends -- and would eventually stand cheek by jowl where they did not actually share party walls. An increasing number of buildings would have exterior load -- bearing brick walls instead of timber framing, but again, their interior construction would be almost entirely of wood. Most of these buildings would be no more than three or four stories high, owing to limitations in the supply of brick: as a rule of thumb, doubling the height of a load-bearing brick wall would quadruple the number of bricks required to support the additional load. The industrialization of brick making did not get underway in earnest until the 1850s, after which the average height of these buildings began to increase to five and six stories. As in 1811, the future timber-framed buildings would rarely go above two or three stories—three or four with the attic included.
Hillary Ballon’s The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811–2011 (2012), has done all students of New York’s history a great service by gathering together between two covers of a book the most important documents—texts, maps, drawings, photographs—related to the making of the grid and its subsequent history, thereby sparing us the difficulty of shuttling back and forth between so many disparate sources, the usual bane of this kind of historical research. Simply indispensable—and beautiful too.
Margaret Holloway’s biography of John Randel, Jr., The Measure of Manhattan (2013) is an entertaining and marvelously informative account of the genesis of 1811 street plan and the surveying of Manhattan.
Nineteenth century New York City Clerk David T. Valentine’s Manuals of the Corporation of the City of New York often included maps showing the extent of the built-up part of the city; the Manuals are altogether a rich source for early New York City history.
Two classic studies of the 1811 plan are Edward K. Spann’s “The Greatest Grid: the NewYork Plan of 1811” in Two Centuries of American Planning (1988), and Peter Marcuse’s “The Grid as City Plan: New York City and laissez-faire Planning in the Nineteenth Century” in Planning Perspectives (1987).
Reuben Rose-Redwood’s dissertation, “Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan” (2002) offers a wide-ranging and epistemologically oriented analysis of the grid, and Rebecca Shanor’s The City That Never Was (1988) provides a rich account of its subsequent history.