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The Grid: Creating a Vertical Manhattan

By Carolyn Guerrero

The implementation of the grid system in 1811 played a key role in shaping building placements across Manhattan, and therefore, the Manhattan skyline. As the grid was implemented, the city became more and more humanized.[1] The grid, being an abstract, mathematical thing, was not compatible with Manhattan's topography.[2] In order for the grid to be implemented, the topography of Manhattan Island needed to change to conform more easily to the grid. This change occurred through the lessening of the amount of land with natural landscape and the standardization of roads and property boundaries.
The first and foremost intention of laying out the grid across the Island was to subdivide the land and lay out new streets according to the plans of John Randel Jr., the chief surveyor of the Manhattan grid plan.[3] To achieve this goal, the land was partitioned out in a systematic, standardized fashion.[4] As seen in this early rendering of the grid by John Randel Jr., what was once a large, unified landscape has been subdivided and broken up into small, rectangular plots of land.[5]
Partitioning the land in such a manner and implementing the grid made the newly rationalized landscape more accessible to people with economic and political purposes – in other words, those who wished to change the landscape in the first place. Contractors and builders were now free to create and build upon new property boundaries that were based on the new grid system that New York City was operating under.[6]
Before the implementation of the grid, there was a strong concern that any new streets that developed independently would end up being crooked and narrow, two traits that were highly undesired by city planners. To avoid this, the grid was developed as a network of straight, broad streets.[7] However, “the street system they [John Randel Jr.] established totally unrelated to the contours of the land.”[8] In this detail from Randel's grid plan, the natural landscape that was already present on Manhattan is given no heed.[9]
Randel lays the grid over areas with grass and trees, and cuts across Haerlem Creek. Already, it is clear that the landscape is going to have to be changed if it is to conform to the newly designed grid plan and the rapidly growing city of New York. As such, sacrifices in the heterogeneity, or naturalness, of the landscape had to be made. The land was homogenized and turned into a framework of “numerically coded, perpendicular streets and avenues” that was essentially “a physical representation of the Cartesian coordinate system.”[10]
The grid works similarly to the Cartesian coordinate system, which is a coordinate system that fixes pairs of numerical coordinates on a plane.[11]  The grid, rather than fixing coordinates to a plane, fixes streets and avenues to the Manhattan landscape.
Any new buildings built on the land after the grid was implemented had to follow the lines of the new Cartesian system that had become physically manifested in the land. Thus, buildings could no longer be sporadically placed across the landscape, but were placed in groupings on the newly standardized city blocks. This change in the placement of buildings reflects in the Manhattan skyline. Buildings could no longer be randomly placed across the Manhattan skyline, but had to be placed according to the lines and plots of land that the grid had determined, bringing a sense of order to the buildings in the Manhattan skyline.[12]
Manhattan was transformed into a tabula rosa, or blank slate, of standardized city blocks.[13] The homogenization of city blocks extended to a homogeneity of the way buildings were placed in the blocks.[14]

Buildings now conformed to the right angles of the grid and were built with a new sense of uniformity that could be seen in the skyline, as their placement became more regular and standardized.

After all, one of the grid's main functions was to facilitate economic growth and increase real estate speculation. By homogenizing the placement of buildings to a standardized arrangement that made the most out the space that the buildings occupied, more buildings could be placed in a smaller amount of land. This increased the density of buildings per unit of land. Before the grid was implemented, a single building could be constructed on a large plot of land, leaving an ample amount of open space with no construction on it.[15]

After the grid's implementation, however, real estate speculation increased, which spiked the value of the land. Contractors were given no choice but to utilize the land completely, building on every possible area. Gone were the unobstructed skyline views of nature, with the only the occasional building in sight. From this point onwards, the skyline begins to become dominated with regular buildings, lessening the amount of nature visible in the Manhattan skyline. The skyline becomes clustered, full of many new buildings. After the grid was implemented, more buildings were built in tighter amount of spaces, lessening the amount of natural landscape in the city. The grid also corrected any irregular roads and unsystematic delineated property boundaries, further allowing buildings to be built more regularly and more closely spaced together.[16] Opens plots of land needed to be utilized completely to increase speculation and generate enough revenue to cover the cost of the land that the building was constructed on, so few open spaces were left untouched by construction.[17]

The grid serves as a blueprint for Manhattan's current landscape.[18] Sandueiss writes that street systems are one of the most fundamental things for the development of a modern topography, because the development of street systems is what shapes urban landscapes.[19] This is certainly true in New York City. With the advent of street planning in Manhattan, urbanization increased at a rapid pace. Manmade objects took over what used to be a predominantly natural landscape, and as they took over, they “reconfigur[ed] the Manhattan landscape.”[20] Untamed areas of land were replaced with tamed areas of land. Many topographical features of the natural landscape, things such as streams, wetlands, and hills, obstructed the unnatural planned path of the grid. The grid, however, establishes order – that is its purpose. Rose-Redwood writes that the transformation that occurred when the grid was implemented was “the carving up of the Manhattan landscape into a material replication of the Cartesian coordinate system and the obliteration of anything that did not conform to the linear logic of the grid.”[21] To establish this order, the natural landscape was manipulated to conform to the grid. Hills, streams, marshes - these are all disorderly, so the grid eradicated them. What was once there was then replaced with real estate. As the skyline developed, it reflected this shift from a natural landscape to one full of real estate.

[1] Reuben Rose-Redwood, "Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan,"
PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2002, 16.

[2] Rebecca Shanor, “New York's Paper Streets: Proposals to Relieve the 1811 Gridiron Plan,” Master's diss., Colombia University, 1982, 59.

[3] John Randel Jr. was born in Albany, New York in 1787. He was a widely known surveyor and innovator, who worked on many street maps of Albany. In 1808, Randel was contracted to survey the entirety of the island of Manhattan and produce a street grid system.

Stefan, Bielinski. “John Randall, Jr.” People of Colonial Albany, December 6, 2012.

[4] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 30.

[5] Early plan of the grid by John Randel Jr.

Edward Spann, “The Greatest Grid: the New York Plan of 1811,” Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, l988.

[6] Example of new land divisions and property boundaries.

“Map of the property belonging to Clement Clarke Moore at Chelsea,” Collection of the New York Historical Society, 1835.

[7] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 40.

[8] John Reps, “The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States,” Princeton University Press., Princeton, 1965, 298.

[9] John Randel, Jr., “The Commissioners' Plan of 1811,” New York City Municipal Archives, 1811.

[10] The 1811 Commissioner's plan, seen here with what would become the streets and avenues of New York City.

Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 30.

[11] K. Bolino. “A small portion of the Cartesian coordinate system,” September 8, 2008.

[12] Image by Carolyn Guerrero. (pre-grid - scattered)

[13] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 48.

[14] Image by Carolyn Guerrero. (post-grid - regular)

[15] Image by Carolyn Guerrero. (pre-grid – few buildings)

[16] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 6.

[17] Image by Carolyn Guerrero. (post-grid – lots of buildings, few space)

[18] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 18.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, 38.

[21] Ibid.