A popular historian examines the origin and development of Manhattan’s famous grid.
Given exclusive power and broad discretion, charged with uniting “regularity and order with public convenience,” the three-man state commission appointed in 1807 took four years to come up with the rectilinear grid—150 parallel streets, 12 parallel avenues, 2,000 almost identical blocks—that continues to order the daily life of Manhattan. Their design, likely cribbed from earlier maps and surveys, short on “beautifying embellishments,” and long on simplicity and efficiency, accomplished (along with the roughly contemporaneous construction of the Erie Canal) precisely the goal of town fathers: to turn New York into the nation’s leading city. Though he focuses on the commission and their design and the controversies and criticisms arising over the next 10 years as chief surveyor John Randel Jr. executed their vision, Koeppel (Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire, 2009, etc.) also tells a pre-grid, streets-and-roads story of Colonial-era Manhattan, bringing readers up through to the political rivalry of Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton, whose battles helped set the stage for the commission’s work. As he follows the relentless grid’s progress, from the edges of the settled old city all the way uptown, delightful detours pop up: about the anomaly that is Broadway, about the creation of Central Park (“the grid’s unimagined saving grace”), and about 20th-century proposals to fill in the East River or to add three levels to the too-few avenues to relieve congestion. Scattered throughout the narrative, well-chosen, lively comments from writers, poets, politicians, architects, and scholars either roast or toast the commission’s creation. Koeppel delivers all this with great verve and humor, leaving readers to decide whether the grid is the brilliantly democratic, effective plan its architects thought or the dull and ugly manifestation of unimaginative minds ruled by commerce.
For Manhattanites, surely, and for anyone who’s visited and been either charmed or overwhelmed by the grid.