First We Stake Manhattan

The disorderly story of the perfectly orderly New York City street grid.

Illustration by Luke Pearson

Manhattan was born free, but almost everywhere north of Houston Street, it is in chains.

Such has been the argument of a long line of writers, critics, and ordinary New Yorkers who despise—with a vitriol nearly unique to debates about city planning—the so-called Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 that imposed a rigid grid on Manhattan island to facilitate and organize future development. Edith Wharton ridiculed the plan’s “deadly uniformity of mean ugliness.” Henry James decried the city’s “primal topographic curse.” Walt Whitman lamented that “streets cutting each other at right angles … are certainly the last thing in the world consistent with beauty of situation.”

Perhaps no modern hater of the grid has offered so penetrating a critique as Timothy “Speed” Levitch, the eccentric tour bus operator featured in the 1998 documentary The Cruise:

“The grid plan emanates from our weaknesses—this layout of avenues and streets in New York City, this system of 90-degree angles. To me, the grid plan is Puritan, it’s homogenizing, in a city where there is no homogenization available—there is only total existence, total cacophony, a total flowing of human ethnicities and tribes and beings and gradations of awareness and consciousness and cruising.”

That last being basically Levitch’s term for both touring and good vibes, generally. The woman he’s speaking with says, “I can’t imagine it—everyone likes the grid plan!” At which point Levitch unleashes his epic assault:

“Let’s just blow up the grid plan and rewrite the streets to be much more a self-portraiture of our personal struggles, rather than some real estate broker’s wet dream from 1807. … By saying everyone likes the grid plan, you’re saying I’m going to relive all the mistakes my parents made; I’m going to identify and relive all the sorrows my mother ever lived through; I will propagate and create dysfunctional children in the same dysfunctional way that I was raised; I will spread neuroses throughout the landscape and do my best to re-create myself and the damages of my life for the next generation.”

Levitch’s offhand riff on the finicky, conformist sensibility underlying Manhattan’s grid plan was more right than he knew: To an astonishing degree, what we learn from The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway’s biography of John Randel Jr., the chief designer and implementer of the grid, accords well with Levitch’s psychological profile of the consummate grid-supporter. His implication was a correct one: The grid is indeed a self-portrait.

Randel, who was born in Albany in 1787, grew up during “a surveying boom,” when a large portion of prominent American males—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and later, Lincoln—served in the profession at some point. “His was the era of laying lines on the land,” Holloway declares. It was “a culture and a period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world—through exploration, experiment, science, cartography, and infrastructure—was celebrated.” Beginning in about 1804, Randel was hired to assist New York State surveyor-general Simeon Dewitt in his plan to grid upstate New York. Dewitt was influenced by the earlier plan to grid the entire United States, outlined in the 1785 “Ordinance for Ascertaining the Mode of Disposing of Lands in the Western Territory”—the reason why flyover country looks like a waffle iron.

In 1806 New York City’s governing Common Council appointed three “fit and proper persons”—including Dewitt—to devise a coherent strategy for northward development, preferably one that would “unite regularity and order with public convenience.” These commissioners recognized Randel—described throughout The Measure of Manhattan as “meticulous,” marked by “obsession and brilliance” and a “compulsion” central to his “sense of self”—as the perfect person for the job. He worked nearly every day of the dozen or so years he spent creating and then instituting the grid plan—“with increasing precision and obsession,” Holloway writes. He refused to survey or write on the Sunday Sabbath, and once resorted to paying an especially disorderly employee not to drink. He invented his own instruments when he found existing ones insufficient for the task, and had tantrums over surveying mistakes of piddling importance. Repeatedly set back by winter, wind, and rain; slowed by robbery and broken instruments; arrested and sued for cutting down trees; and once assaulted by an old woman wielding cabbages and artichokes after drawing a street through her kitchen—the surveyor’s main obstacle was his own finicky perfectionism. “Irregularities unsettled Randel,” as Holloway understatedly puts it.

Planning for the development of New York City beyond its northern border—then at Houston Street, called North Street, though pre-existing Greenwich Village was exempt—was regularly presented in Manichean terms of intellect against emotion, order against chaos. “We have suffered so much from pestilence,” a group of New Yorkers wrote to the mayor and Common Council just after Randel submitted his plan, “We have so severely felt the evil of confused Streets.” The plan’s geometric egalitarianism appealed to the young country’s democratic spirit, and, as Holloway persuasively argues, helped to “transform space into an expression of public philosophy.”

But once the Enlightenment started giving way to more Romantic notions of reason, order, solitude, space, and beauty, the grid became less popular. Frederick Law Olmsted, for instance, wrote that curved streets “imply leisure, contemplativeness, and happy tranquility,” while straight streets connote “eagerness to press forward, without looking to the right or left.” Olmsted designed Central Park, according to Garrett Dash Nelson, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, as an “anti-grid” space that would give New Yorkers a break from the otherwise unrelenting monotony Olmsted once called “the epitome of the evil of commercialism.” That urban-planning Romanticism, upgraded and cult-studded, is now one component of “critical geography,” which seeks to examine how the world of ideas and power relations manifests itself on physical landscapes.

Postmodernism, however, doesn’t necessarily entail contempt for the grid. Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architectural theorist, wrote about it at length in his 1978 landmark Delirious New York, arguing that the plan’s “two-dimensional discipline … creates undreamt-of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy.” New York’s wonderful chaos, then, is predicated on—not limited by, as Levitch and others have argued—the existence of an underlying order. Michael Kimmelman, the New York Times architecture critic, has expressed a similar point, calling the grid plan “the ego to our id.” Roland Barthes, representing the foreign tourist/theorist constituency, touted the grid’s navigability:

“This is the purpose of these numbered streets, inflexibly distributed according to regular distances: not to make the city into a huge machine and man into an automaton, as we are repeatedly and stupidly told by those for whom tortuosity and dirt are the gauges of spirituality …”

He’s calling you out, Levitch, Whitman, Olmsted, etc.

“… but on the contrary to master the distances and orientations by the mind, to put at one man’s disposal the space of these twelve million. … This is the purpose of New York’s geometry: that each individual should be poetically the owner of the capital of the world.”

Author Marguerite Holloway

Courtesy of Miriam Beyer

Thus the philosophy of the grid comes full circle: Barthes claims the grid plan as a victory for the intellect and the individual, not so different from what its Enlightenment-influenced designers had in mind.

The Measure of Manhattan allows us to appreciate, for the first time, the extent to which the rationality of the grid plan can be attributed to the irrationally obsessive man who “affixe[d] the city to the island,” in Holloway’s words. Toward the end of his life, as he suffered many professional setbacks and legal difficulties, Randel became litigious and rather unhinged. It is initially startling to see Randel described in his later years as “erratic and peculiar” while before he had been “precise and exacting.” Then one realizes that note was there all along. Examining the instruments Randel invented, one expert whom Holloway quotes wondered whether Randel carried his Enlightenment rationality “to an excess, to where it became counterproductive … to where logic did not dictate his decisions.” The same is evident in his grid. If Randel wasn’t the one who “spread neuroses throughout the landscape,” in Levitch’s words, the only question is: Who did?

The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor  by Marguerite Holloway. W.W. Norton.

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