The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011

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My name is Hilary Ballon.
I am a university professor at NYU. I teach in the planning program
at the Wagner School of Public Service, and I’m also the Deputy Vice Chancellor of NYU Abu Dhabi. The Manhattan grid is the system of right-angled streets and avenues
that run the length of the island. And, if you think about the streets that run at odd
angles and have names like “Bleecker Street” or “Minetta Lane” in lower Manhattan, this is what Manhattan was like before 1811. And, there were a set of city leaders who understood that that system, that lack of system, if you will, would inhibit the orderly development of Manhattan. The grid plan was established in 1811, and what the plan proposed
was to draw a line around the developed part of the city, and planning
a grid system that would run from approximately just above Greenwich Village to 155th Street. The driving force behind the grid were three commissioners: three men who were appointed by the New York State Legislature in 1807 to establish this plan. And, once it was
established, the commissioners stepped back, and it was really in the hands of the city, and then generation after generation of city leaders, to see that the plan was adhered to and implemented. 14th Street was the first completely transverse Street, and above it, New York was not flat; the city was hilly. There were big rocky boulders; there were marshes and streams and swamps. So, part of facilitating the development of the grid was largely flattening the island, filling in the swamps, leveling the hills. Broadway and 84th Street in the 1870s.
And you can see that this house is marooned on a large boulder, while
Broadway has just been laid out below. So, the making of the grid entailed
the first large-scale act of eminent domain in the history of New York City. In some cases, the land owners chose to preserve their house, lift it, and relocate it so that it now complied
with the right-angled geometry of the grid. But in most cases the farmhouses
and the buildings were simply destroyed. A team of surveyors went out onto the island and indicated where the the crossings of the streets and avenues would be located with these hard-to-remove marble monuments.
And, on each- at each intersection, the name of the avenue and cross
street was inscribed, as you can see with 26th Street, here; and on the side facing me is 4th
Avenue. So, there are originally hundreds of these marble monuments marking the corners of the grid. Frederick Law Olmsted, the great
designer of Central Park, hated the grid of manhattan. He thought
it was anti-architectural; he thought it deprived the city
of the possibility of having any of the monuments that had distinguished the great
cities of Europe, like Paris or London. What he couldn’t appreciate was that the grid would give rise to a new urban language; to a new urban form. As we walk the streets of the city today, I think that we take for granted some of the things that Olmsted just couldn’t envision. For example, the view that we have along the av- up the avenues or down the avenues or across the cross streets. That sense of a vista to the horizon, an infinite vista, is really quite extraordinary. In most cities, there’s something that prevents that long view. There were gridded cities before, and there are gridded cities now, that have numbers in one direction, but using numbers in both directions was quite unusual. So, to say that I’m at the corner of Fifth Avenue
and 42nd Street, or 6th Avenue and 59th Street, that number system is very abstract.
And, this we take utterly for granted; and I think most people find it extremely orienting. Broadway, which was actually then called
Bloomingdale Road for the better part of its northern stretch, was not to be retained; and over the course of the 19th century, it was decided in incremental bits
and pieces to keep that street. It was renamed Broadway, and it was also straightened out because the pre-grid version
was a meandering, curving kind of trail. One of my goals in this exhibition
was to denaturalize the grid for visitors and residents alike. We take the grid as the natural condition of New York. The grid was a- resulted from a set of hard decisions and policies that were enforced over a century,
and continue to be enforced today. It’s easy to look at the plan itself,
this nearly 9 foot long drawing, and say, “Here’s the plan and here we have New York.” But how it was turned into three dimensions, how this- how people’s properties
were reshaped, how the city was flattened, how those really long avenues were built, how
the city reorganized itself and changed its conception of what the public realm was —
these were things that interested me. In 1811, the city leaders were
looking to the future, were considering what kind of changes were needed, or what kind of measures were needed, to prepare the city to be strong in the future — in the long term future. And, I think it’s that long-term perspective and
that willingness to take on a big project that makes this exhibition, or this highlighting of the 1811 plan, so significant; because, we face big challenges today, and it’s kind of bracing to think how our forefathers did it 200 years ago.

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