Divided and conquered: Museum of the City of New York reveals how lines on paper created the Manhattan we inhabit

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Peter Baab's photo from a rooftop at Park and 94th Street. ()
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Brian Sholis

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When it was dedicated in 1811, New York’s City Hall, a French Renaissance–inspired confection, stood at the northern edge of a city crowded around the tip of Manhattan island. To save on costs, its rear façade, which some believed would long remain out of sight, was sheathed in cut-price brownstone. So long as the city huddled around the port, no one was likely to complain. Yet just as construction was being completed, founding father Gouverneur Morris, state surveyor Simeon De Witt, and businessman John Rutherford unveiled their Commissioners’ Plan, the result of several years’ study of Manhattan’s topography. The plan called for an ambitious grid of twelve broad avenues and 155 streets to extend far up the mostly rural island. The back of City Hall has faced most Manhattan residents ever since.

With “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” on view now at the Museum of the City of New York, historian and curator Hilary Ballon demonstrates how and why the Commissioners’ Plan decisively shaped today’s New York City. Of that turning point two centuries ago, Ballon notes, “the commissioners underestimated the city’s propulsive future growth, which their plan enabled, if not accelerated.” From a population of less than 100,000 at the time the plan was unveiled, Manhattan would contain more than a million a century later.

The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.

At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.

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In the middle of the nineteenth century, Edgar Allan Poe, then living at the Brennan farmhouse in a bucolic section of what is now known as the Upper West Side, lamented the city’s transformation from sublime natural landscape to regimented blocks: “these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath.”

Money, above all, drove such “Improvement,” and many of the objects on display are related to land speculation and transfers. Better than anyone else, John Jacob Astor anticipated the future value of Manhattan, plowing much of the fortune he acquired from the fur trade into undeveloped tracts of real estate north of the city’s residential quarters. As New York grew, he divided his holdings into smaller parcels and sold them for enormous profit. The idea worked spectacularly: adjusted for inflation, his $20 million fortune at the time of his death makes him one of the richest Americans in the country’s history.

Others recognized that because Manhattan land was finite, taking even small pieces of land off the market would increase the value of adjacent properties. So it was that during the 1830s, the lawyer Samuel B. Ruggles pushed city leaders for the creation of Gramercy Park, and to this day that small, fenced-in oasis of gentility has meant sky-high prices for the residences along its border.

There is, of course, a flip side to these speculators’ efforts, as pictures of squatters’ shantytowns, pushed ever northward, attest. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, with most of the grid filled in, not even recent construction was spared, as new building technologies allowed mid-rise apartment towers to replace the previous decade’s walk-up tenements and single-family houses. At some points, it seems as if every other wall label ends with the same sentence: “[These buildings] were torn down in...”

One can see these transformations most dramatically in a series of ten panorama photographs taken by Peter Baab during the winter of 1882-83. Ascending to the roof of brewing magnate George Ehret’s new mansion on Fourth (now Park) Avenue between Ninety-third and Ninety-fourth Streets, Baab captured disparate scenes: each cardinal direction revealed a dramatically different cityscape. To the south stretches Fourth Avenue, newly widened to accommodate the railroad tracks running beneath its surface. To the southwest intermittent residential buildings sprout from the earth like weeds, while in the distance lies the blank expanse of Central Park. Looking northward Baab found an odd mix of factories, open land, speculative apartment buildings, and a few remaining farms, holdouts that would give way—without fail—to new development during the ensuing decades. Though not as technically accomplished or well-known as Eadweard Muybridge’s 1878 panorama of San Francisco, Baab’s fascinating document reveals far more about a city in transition.

The Plan’s grid today defines the look of Manhattan; the majority of the island’s capillaries run at ninety-degree angles. Unlike most cities, in New York addresses count for little, requiring complicated mathematical formulas to decode their locations. How many of us know that the Empire State Building is located at 350 Fifth Avenue? How many more know it’s at Fifth and Thirty-fourth? We want to know the nearest cross streets, as suggested by a video depicting New Yorkers reciting the intersections at which they stand. It provides the soundtrack to the exhibition, a litany of paired numbers that accompanies visitors as they wander the densely packed gallery. One could argue that the sheer profusion of material—arranged in short, street-like alcoves that abut two “avenues” that run the length of the room—mirrors the city’s density and diversity. Yet the show feels overly documentary. By sequestering (in an upstairs annex) eight new architectural proposals that rethink the grid, Ballon and the show’s designers miss a chance to leaven the proceedings.

Nonetheless, it’s to Ballon’s credit that by the final wall of the exhibition, which includes projects demonstrating “Modern Reforms,” visitors know both that Manhattan did not have to be developed this way, and why it ended up being so anyway. The order and stability demanded by capital ineluctably shaped the growth of our city. Swamps, hills, and rocky outcroppings put only small dents in the plan, and were all eventually smoothed over; resistant or enterprising developers were likewise unable to escape the 1811 plan’s embrace. Whether you are inclined to grouse about the grid’s constraints or celebrate its rational efficiency, Ballon’s thoughtful exhibition provides fascinating ammunition. It demonstrates, in her words, “how lines on paper were inscribed in the ground and acted as the framework for two hundred years of city living.”

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011” is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through April 15, 2012.