Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Ten Cities 3) New York

Providence, December 19, 2012

Hard to believe that only a couple hundred years ago New York was little more than a settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan.  Even more unbelievable, that around that time, someone--John Randel Jr., a surveyor working for the "Commissioners of Streets and Avenues in the City of New York"--sat down and drew a grid that was going to define New York City centuries into the future.  Yes, just like that.  What is known as "The Commissioner's Plan of 1811" laid out a rectangular grid with twelve wide avenues about a thousand feet apart running roughly north south, and 155 narrower streets 260 feet apart from Houston Street all the way up to Washington Heights.  The grid was more or less aligned with the shore of the Hudson River (about 29 degrees from east-west) and whatever avenues east of 1st were necessary to cover unaccounted portions of the island were named with letters.  

The map showed little concern for either existing property lines or topography, prompting a contemporary critic to say refer to the Commissioners as "... men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome."  Still, their grid turned proved not only enormously successful but also full of opportunities for adjustments and reinterpretations (just think of the vertical dimension!)

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