6/12/13 - the plan for new york city

In today's selection -- New York City is designed as a grid. At a time when iconic cities such as London and Rome had been designed around hills and waterways, and the new city of Washington, D.C. had adventurous circles and diagonals, New York City's plan plowed all nature's features into flat ground and paved all the streets in right angles. Though viewed by many today as a planning triumph, when originally published the complaints were immediate:

"In 1811 the Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York published a map that planned for the Manhattan of the future. The commissioners' plan, sometimes referred to as the Randel plan for its chief engineer and surveyor, showed a rectilinear grid of numbered east-west streets and numbered and lettered north-south avenues imposing machinelike order from Houston Street all the way up to 155th Street. As with so much else in New York City's history, real estate interests had top priority in the commissioners' thoughts. In the report published with the map, they noted that 'one of the first objects which claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility.' (This is surely a disparaging reference to Pierre L'Enfant's more fanciful and, to this day, traffic-bedeviling plan for the new District of Columbia.) 'In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive.'

 Full Randel map (100 × 30") pen and ink map accepted by Mayor Dewitt Clinton on 4 May

"From the day it was published the plan drew harsh criticism. Where were the utilitarian back alleys, the monotony-relieving plazas, the breathtaking hilltop vistas that befit a great city? 'These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome,' one New Yorker griped in 1818. He was not far off; much of the once hilly island would be flattened as the grid marched inexorably uptown. In 1893 a Harper's Monthly writer complained:

The magnificent opportunity which was given to the Commissioners to create a beautiful city simply was wasted and thrown away. Having to deal with a region well wooded, broken by hills, and diversified by watercourses -- where the very contours of the land suggested curving roads, and its unequal surface reservations for beauty's sake alone -- these worthy men decided that the forests should be cut away, the hills levelled, the hollows filled in, the streams buried; and upon the flat surface thus created they clapped down a ruler and completed their Boeotian [i.e., dull-witted] programme by creating a city in which all was right angles and straight lines.'

"The writer summed up the plan as 'a mere grind of money making in stupid commonplace ways.'

"One small area on the map bucked the precision-tooled order. Just above Houston Street on the Hudson flank of the island lay a maze of crooked, angled streets, a small eruption of eccentricity and disorder: the former Bossen Bouwerie, now called Greenwich Village."


John Strausbaugh


The Village


HarperCollins Publishers


Copyright 2013 by John Strausbaugh


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