The Almighty Grid

Although today it seems as natural as air, Manhattan’s system of numbered streets is actually a visionary piece of urban planning.

The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011
Through April 15
Museum of the City of New York

I am a child of the grid. I grew up in a suburban New Jersey town that was mapped in the early twentieth century, its streets numbered and laid ut with neat, right-angled precision. Growing up, I often visited cousins in post-war Levittown, where I was puzzled by the nonhierarchical layout, with its curvy byways that didn’t seem to go anywhere. And I was confounded by the preciousness of the street names: Bud Lane met Twig Lane, which intersected Branch Lane. I longed for a firm, ordinal sequence.

Not long ago, I was in the Netherlands, bicycling around the city of Almere, and I felt some of that old Levittown unease. Almere is the youngest city in the Netherlands, a product of the damming and draining of much of the Zuiderzee. The city is built on what had been sea bottom, resulting in an urban planner’s dream imposed on a tabula rasa. The first of its districts, Almere Haven (or Harbor), was begun in 1975, and has a street layout that can best be described as amoebic. I got lost trying to find the harbor and got completely turned around as I followed substantial-looking streets that eventually withered away and died as culs-de-sac.

A few days later, I explored IJburg, a twenty-first-century Amsterdam neighborhood built on a man-made island on the city’s eastern waterfront. I felt completely at ease, and was able to navigate without a problem. It wasn’t just that, as a local planner told me, the streets were laid out in the same familiar proportions as those of old Amsterdam, with a close relationship of front door to street, and with the bike lanes and tram tracks sharing the pavement with pedestrians and cars. IJburg was mapped on a grid.

To me, Manhattan’s grid—the reliable network of numbered streets (20 to the mile), and the more widely and irregularly spaced avenues—is the city as God intended it. Of course, there’s nothing remotely natural about it. Some 200 years ago, the grid was willed onto the landscape, in defiance of topography and land ownership, by a far-sighted group of appointed commissioners: Simeon De Witt, the surveyor general of New York State; Gouverneur Morris, whose family named their section of the Bronx Morrisania; and John Rutherfurd, who was related to Morris through marriage. The grid’s recent bicentennial was the occasion for an absorbing exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York, The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811–2011 (on view through April 15), and an equally satisfying catalog. The show’s premise is that the grid, which we now take for granted, was an immensely ambitious infrastructure project, requiring tremendous vision, political will, and decades of hard labor. The exhibition’s curator, Hilary Ballon, pointed out that even two centuries ago, when Manhattan’s residents primarily were concentrated south of Canal Street, they were inclined to push back against change. “New York was no tabula rasa,” Ballon writes in the catalog. “The island was not urbanized, but it was already divided into privately owned parcels.”

The exhibition tells the story of the grid through documents, like the original Commissioners Map, which was the first to delineate the system, and through endless historic photographs. There are aspects of the story that I’d never given much thought, like the construction of Manhattan’s streets. It took about 60 years of leveling and grading to extend this city’s defining feature, its network of pavement, as far uptown as 155th Street, where the grid concept was finally overwhelmed by hilly topography.

As much as I enjoyed the history, I would have preferred a larger exhibition, one where there was room for broader reflection on the meaning of the grid. Yes, we learn from The Greatest Grid that Manhat-tan’s wasn’t the first. As a tool for apportioning space, the grid goes way back. The Spanish used it as a colonizing tool in New World cities such as Lima. Philadelphia acquired its grid in the 1680s. And in the 1780s, Thomas Jefferson imposed a gridded surveying system on the United States, breaking the land west of the Appalachians into a vast checkerboard of six-square-mile towns and one-square-mile sections. In the New World, we’re all children of the grid. But this exhibition is only concerned with the grid as a strategy for dividing up a landscape. Other types of grids—the spreadsheet, for example—figure prominently in our lives. Grids are also fundamental to the design system advocated in the postwar years, which sought to give asymmetrical modernist graphics an orderly, scientific-seeming underpinning, and were famously championed by Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann’s Grid Systems in Graphic Design. The grid system reached its apex in the 1970s, was rebelled against by designers in the 1980s and 1990s, and has lately been embraced by Web designers.

It’s odd that at the same moment that the graphic designers’ grid established itself as a tool for advancing one strain of modernism, another strain was trying to make the urban grid disappear. Postwar urban-renewal projects, such as public housing developments, Lincoln Center, the New York Coliseum, and, of course, the World Trade Center, were built on grid-erasing superblocks, which promised larger, more spectacular buildings, offset by open space.

The grid is actually more accommodating than it appears. While it has reined in the size and, to a certain extent, the shape of Manhattan’s buildings, the grid has motivated developers, architects, and planners to either subvert or compensate for it. The wedding cake–shaped buildings that emerged from New York’s 1916 Zoning Resolution and the modern office towers accompanied by the open plazas that were mandated by 1961 zoning can both be read as creative responses to the fixity of the grid. Skyscrapers themselves can be viewed as a reaction to the tightly configured horizontal landscape (although New York’s original towers sprang up on the grid-free but still narrow streets of Lower Manhattan). On the downside, New York’s more conservative architectural environment (relative to Shanghai or Dubai) can be partly attributed to the constraints of the grid and the fact that most Manhattan buildings are finessed into a finely woven fabric.

Back in Almere, I began thinking about rigidity versus flexibility. While that city is anything but dense, with endless acres of greenery surrounding each of its urban districts—the equivalent of the white space you’d find on a 1970s Swiss poster—nothing is exactly fluid, and the schematic nature of the place is still too visible. Everything—even the trees—was planned, and built exactly as envisioned. Surprises (like a museum not in the designated district) are barely tolerated. Only recently, and in certain areas, has the city begun allowing individuals to build their own homes, designed as they see fit.

By contrast, in Manhattan, as far back as the 1830s, developers and politicians were already stretching and bending the lines. Landowners inserted extra north–south avenues—like Madison and Lexington—that the commissioners hadn’t deemed necessary. Central Park was plopped down smack in the middle of the grid, erasing scores of carefully plotted blocks. According to Ballon, the commissioners had merely hoped their rectilinear city would fill with “right-angled houses…cheap to build and…convenient to live in.” They couldn’t have foreseen that some of those boxy constructs would grow up to be the Empire State Building or the Chrysler Building.

Happily, the grid’s consistency is frequently offset by anomalies. Broadway—conspicuous for the famous diagonal it cuts through the heart of Manhattan—is an extension of the colonial city’s main drag, and wasn’t part of the original grid. Yet it exists, creating a wonderful series of oddly angled intersections like the Times Square “bowtie” or the wedge-shaped corner where the Flatiron Building stands.

And the grid, in its utter simplicity, is a different animal than a city plan or a set of zoning regulations, which tend to accumulate revisions and amendments intended to cover unplanned scenarios. In contrast, the grid, while it has been stretched in some spots and broken in others, is still the straightforward, no-nonsense tool it’s always been. Mostly, it’s invisible; we don’t usually talk about it, except in the context of gridlock or when asking, “What’s the cross street?” But in Manhattan, from Houston Street to 155th Street, the grid is what defines us. It’s the thing we perceive as nature.

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