Commissioners' Plan of 1811
The Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was the original design plan for the streets of Manhattan, which put in place the grid plan that has defined Manhattan to this day. It has been called "the single most important document in New York City's development," and the plan has been described as encompassing the "republican prediliction for control and balance ... [and] distrust of nature." It was described by the commission that created it as combining "beauty, order and convenience."
The plan originated as a proposal by the New York State Legislature, adopted in 1811 for the orderly development and sale of the land of Manhattan between 14th Street and Washington Heights. The plan is arguably the most famous use of the grid plan and is considered by most historians to have been far-reaching and visionary. Since its earliest days, the plan has been criticized for its monotony and rigidity, in comparison with irregular street patterns of older cities, but in recent years has been viewed more favorably by urban planning critics.
Central Park, the massive urban greenspace in Manhattan running from Fifth Avenue to Eighth Avenue and from 59th Street to 110th Street, is not a part of this plan, as Central Park was not envisioned until 1853. There were a few smaller interruptions in the grid, such as the Grand Parade between 23rd Street and 33rd Street, which was the precursor to Madison Square Park as well as four squares named Harlem, Hamilton, Bloomingdale and Manhattan.
Earlier street layouts for Manhattan had been drawn up prior to the Commissioners' Plan. In 1797, for example, the city asked Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck to survey Manhattan's streets; the two eventually produced a map which included a web of future streets, most of which appeared to correspond with future developers' speculative plans for street grids on their properties north of the city. Nevertheless, the scheme was pointedly rejected by the City Council.
In 1807, however, the City Council showed a new willingness to consider planning for the city's future, and, faced with opposition and conflict from property owners and various political factions, asked the state legislature for help. The council said its goal was "laying out Streets... in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit and in particular to promote the health of the City ... [by allowing] a free and abundant circulation of air" to stave off disease. (At the time, foul air was thought to be the cause of many diseases.) In March 1807, the state legislature appointed a three-member commission made up of Gouverneur Morris, the lawyer John Rutherfurd, and the state surveyor Simeon De Witt, to establish a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan.
A month later, the state legislature gave the commissioners "exclusive power to lay out streets, roads, and public squares, of such width, extent, and direction, as to them shall seem most conducive to public good, and to shut up, or direct to be shut up, any streets or parts thereof which have been heretofore laid out... [but] not accepted by the Common Council." The jurisdiction of the commission was all of Manhattan north of Houston Street, and into the Hudson and East Rivers 600 feet beyond the low water mark.
Morris was named the president of the commission. The commissioners were paid $4 a day for their work, and were empowered to enter onto private property to undertake their duties; this was greeted with widespread hostility from property owners. The commissioners' chief engineer and surveyor, John Randel, Jr., said afterwards that he "was arrested by the Sheriff, on numerous suits instituted...for trespass and damage by...workmen, in passing over grounds, cutting off branches of trees. &c., to make surveys under instructions from the Commissioners."
At the meetings of the commission, the primary concern was what kind of layout the new area of the city should have, a rectilinear grid such as was used in Philadelphia, Savannah, Charleston and New Orleans, or a more complex systems utilizing circles, arcs or other patterns, such as L'Enfant had used in laying out Washington, D.C. In the end, the commission decided on the gridiron as being the most practical and cost-effective, as "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in."
The commissioners published their plan in March 1811 in the form of an eight-foot map with an accompanying 54-page pamphlet. The grid had 12 primary north-south avenues roughly parallel to the shore of the Hudson River and numerous cross streets arranged in a regular right-angled grid. (Broadway, an existing road, was not included in the 1811 plan, and was added to the grid later.) Except in the north and south ends of the island, the avenues would begin with First Avenue on the east side and run through Twelfth Avenue in the west. In addition, where the island was wider, there would be four additional lettered avenues running from Avenue A eastward to Avenue D.
There would also be 155 orthogonal cross streets. The location of the cross streets was fixed at the boundaries of 5-acre (20,000 m2) parcels into which the land had previously been divided. The basepoint for the cross streets was First Street: this was a short and inconspicuous street, which still exists, and originally ran from the intersection of Avenue B and Houston Street to the intersection of the Bowery and Bleecker Street. Peretz Square, a small triangular sliver park where Houston Street, First Street and First Avenue meet marks the spot where the grid takes hold.
Each avenue was to be 100 feet (30 m) wide. The avenues in the center of the island were to be separated by 922 feet (281 m), and the avenues along the waterfront were to be slightly closer. The operating theory was that street frontage near the piers would be more valuable than the landlocked interior, the waterfront being the location of commerce and industry of the time, and so it would be to everyone's benefit to place avenues closer together at the island's edges.
The numbered streets running east-west are 60 feet (18 m) wide, with about 200 feet (61 m) between each pair of streets, resulting in a grid of approximately 2,000 long, narrow blocks. With each combined street and block adding up to about 260 feet (79 m), there are almost exactly 20 blocks per mile. Fifteen crosstown streets were designated as 100 feet (30 m) wide: 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 106th, 116th, 125th, 135th, 145th and 155th Streets.
The width of the crosstown blocks was irregular. The distance between First and Second Avenues was 650 feet, but 610 feet was the gap between Second and Third Avenues, while the blocks between Third and Sixth Avenues were 920 feet, and 800 feet from Sixth to 12th. Lexington and Madison Avenues were added after the original plan.
Existing buildings could remain in place, and if removal was necessary the owners would receive compensation. In 2011, it was estimated that almost 40% of the buildings north of Houston Street which were standing in 1811 (721 out of 1,825) had to be moved.
Extensions and modifications
The numbered street and avenue plan was eventually continued north of 155th Street. It was also continued into the Bronx: however, the grids on the east side and west side do not match up exactly, especially in the northern reaches of the borough. North of Washington Square Park in Manhattan, the numbered cross streets are divided into East and West at Fifth Avenue ; south of the Park, Broadway is the boundary between East and West numbered cross streets.
Most of the numbered avenues have been officially renamed over parts or all of their routes: only First, Second, Third and Fifth Avenues have never been renamed, though some of the named avenues, such as Avenue of the Americas (Sixth), are also known by their numbers. Two additional avenues were interpolated amongst the original avenues: Madison Avenue was built between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue (formerly Fourth Avenue), and Lexington Avenue, known south of 20th Street as Irving Place, was built between Park Avenue and Third Avenue. Several other avenues were added to the grid when Upper Manhattan was developed, such as Riverside Drive, Claremont Avenue, and Saint Nicholas Avenue. The old Bloomingdale Road – which is pictured on the original 1811 map, but which was not part of the planned grid – was eventually preserved as part of what is now known as Broadway.
Over the years, portions of Avenue A were renamed Sutton Place in Midtown Manhattan, York Avenue in the Upper East Side, and Pleasant Avenue in East Harlem. Portions of Avenue B were also renamed East End Avenue in Yorkville.
The plan of numbered crosstown streets has survived for two centuries with only minor variations and irregularities, especially below the original 155th Street northern boundary. The most notable irregularities are in Harlem where West 125th and West 126th Streets go off on a diagonal to the north, and in the West Village where a number of streets vary from the original plan. Among them is West 4th Street, intersecting with West 10th, 11th, 12th and 13th Streets.
In 1853, Central Park was laid out between 59th and 110th Streets and Fifth Avenue and Eighth Avenues. Other major interruptions of the 1811 plan include the main Columbia University campus in Morningside Heights, the Columbia University Medical Center campus in Washington Heights, Lincoln Center, Morningside Park, Stuyvesant Town, Peter Cooper Village, and the City College of New York.
The plan was vociferously criticized from the start, not the least because it did not take into account the natural topography of the island. In 1818, Clement Clarke Moore, whose estate "Chelsea" would be chopped up by the plan, wrote:
The great principle which governs these plans is, to reduce the surface of the earth as nearly as possible to dead level. ... The natural inequities of the ground are destroyed. and the existing water courses disregarded. ... These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome.
Thomas Janvier's book In Old New York (1894) criticized the plan as only "a grind of money-making," and Henry James called it a "primal topographic curse." Alexis de Toqueville believed that it fostered "relentless monotony."
Modern reaction to the grid has been sharply divided. Noted architecture critic Lewis Mumford wrote that: "With a T-square and a triangle, finally, the municipal engineer, without the slightest training as either an architect or a sociologist, could "plan" a metropolis..."" while urban historian John W. Reps said of it that "As an aid to speculation the commissioners' plan was perhaps unequaled, but only on this ground can it justifiably be called a great achievement." Such criticism may be beside the point, since facilitating "buying, selling and improving real estate" was, according to chief surveyor John Randel Jr., one of the purposes of instituting the grid.
More recently, the plan has come in for praise despite its shortcomings. One critic recently pointed out that the wide avenues attract retail and commercial use, among other benefits, and architect Rem Koolhaas comments that it created "undreamed-of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy."
- Augustyn, Robert T. & Cohen, Paul E. (1997). Manhattan in Maps: 1527-1995. New York: Rizzoli International Press. ISBN 0847820521. pp.100-106
- Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike (1999). Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195116348., pp. 419-22
- Gray, Christopher (2005-10-23). "Are Manhattan's Right Angles Wrong?". The New York Times. Retrieved 9 July 2010.
- URBANPHOTO: Cities / People / Place » An Alternate Map of Manhattan
- Remarks Of The Commissioners For Laying Out Streets And Roads In The City Of New York, Under The Act Of April 3, 1807, accessed May 7, 2008. "These streets are all sixty feet wide except fifteen, which are one hundred feet wide, viz.: Numbers fourteen, twenty-three, thirty-four, forty-two, fifty-seven, seventy-two, seventy-nine, eighty-six, ninety-six, one hundred and six, one hundred and sixteen, one hundred and twenty-five, one hundred and thirty-five, one hundred and forty-five, and one hundred and fifty-five--the block or space between them being in general about two hundred feet."
- Peretz Square, New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. Accessed July 12, 2007. "A sliver of Manhattan bounded by Houston Street, First Street and First Avenue, Peretz Square marks the spot where the tangled jumble of lower Manhattan meets the regularity of the Commissioners' Plan street grid."
- Roberts, Sam. "200th Birthday for the Map That Made New York" New York Times (May 20, 2011)
- Burrows, Edwin G. & Wallace, Mike (1999). Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195116348., p.447
- Reps, John W. The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1965. p.299. quoted in Rybczynski, Witold. City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World. New York: Scribner, 1995. p.99. ISBN 0-684-81302-5
- Jackson, Kenneth T. (1985). Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504983-7., p.74
- The Commissioners' report of 1807, with a modern introduction and an 1811 map
- Rose-Redwood, R. (2002), Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid upon the Island of Manhattan
- "The Grid at 200: Lines That Shaped Manhattan" by Michael Kimmelman, New York Times, January 2, 2012
- The Great American Grid, a website devoted to orthogonal planning.