If you look at a map of Manhattan, you’ll see that the streets below Houston intersect randomly, while the streets above it are plotted at right angles. Few New Yorkers question the difference, but the reason dates back to 1785; Congress had all the land in the USA plotted in rectangles! It had never been done before, especially in England, where the land looks like a giant tesserae mosaic. But Congress needed to sell land to pay the Revolutionary War debts, so the land was plotted and sold off, and the Manhattan grid was born.
If you love to see old photos of what Manhattan used to be, you’ll love this book. The Greatest Grid is like a perfectly curated museum of how the city grew, from wasteland to pig farms, and from pig farms to rows of townhouses. Some of the photos look odd, because they show apartment houses interspersed between three-block long lots full of squatter shacks. This is because few residents could afford to buy a house unless they could rent the apartments, and with all the people moving into the city, apartment houses made sense. As for the lots between the shacks, I’m going to guess that some pig farmers wouldn’t sell their land, so the builders started on whatever land they could get.
Manhattan’s financial district was settled way back in the 1600’s, so the property lines follow the natural course of the land, hence the tiny streets and narrow alleys. The rest of the city fits perfectly with the perfectly geometric post-1950 office buildings. Parkland was a common feature of the early map, because the planners wanted to preserve the bucolic setting and avoid the slums of the Five Points. Park Avenue literally was an avenue with a large park down the middle, narrowed later on to make the lanes wider. Washington Square Park, on the other hand, started out as a potter’s field, and became a park when they ran out of space for the bodies. Hart Island (right off the Bronx) is now the city potter’s field, and perhaps that will become a park when they run out of room.
This well-researched book belongs in all of the city’s public libraries, and should be required reading for anyone studying architecture or urban planning. I have to wonder if the grid layout partly had to do with restricting the population as much as it had to do with selling the land? It makes it easier to Gerrymander a voting district when the city is plotted uniformly. You can restrict public housing to one area above or below a street, and that will keep your opponents out of your constituency. It would’ve made sense to the politicians in the days before the Civil War, when the city was less built-up and downtown Manhattan was poorer.
Personally, in all the years I’ve lived in this city, I’ve preferred the grid. It makes it far easier to find my way around. Perhaps that’s why foreign tourists love this city so much.