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The Grid as a New York City Landscape

By Carolyn Guerrero

In 1807, a plan was passed in New York legislation to superimpose a new topographical feature on the New York City landscape. This topographical development came to be known as the grid. The Commissioner's Plan of 1811[1] (otherwise known as the grid street plan) was adopted by the Common Council in 1811 and involved numerically coding the streets and avenues between Hudson street and Houston street, marking the division between old New York City and new New York City.[2]

The grid itself works as a superimposition of a “physical representation of the Cartesian coordinate system” upon the Manhattan landscape.[3] There were several benefits to implementing the grid, for “a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and the straight sided and right angled houses are the most cheap to build, and the most convenient to live in.”[4]

Regardless of these benefits, however, the superimposition of this abstract geometrical form on the landscape in the 19th century led to a dramatic physical transformation of the land. Irregularities of the land ceased to exist in favor of a homogeneous terrain. The new uniformity of the land reflected in the Manhattan skyline. In this image[5], a 1763 engraving of the city of New York, the natural environment is seen before it has been drastically changed by any forms of industrialization.

Not only does the painting evoke a rural quality, but it displays the rolling hills that once were present all across the island of Manhattan, including the skyline area. In comparison, this image[6] from 2014 shows a completely different skyline.

Traces of nature are gone – the skyline is now dominated by buildings. The rolling hills that could be seen in the 1763 engraving are gone, as well. Instead, the land is completely flat. It didn't take long for this change to occur, however. It wasn't long after the grid system was implemented that the Manhattan skyline began reflecting the changes in the newly leveled land. This photograph[7] from 1897, taken less than a hundred years after the grid system was implemented, already shows a uniform, flat landscape.

The skyline is no longer dominated by varying elevations, but is now a singular flat surface.
The development of the grid rationalized the Manhattan landscape by creating a spatial reorganization of the layout of the land. The landscape that people today are familiar with is not the same landscape which people in the 19th century were living on and looking at. What used to be a natural, geometrically irregular landscape became a geometrically regular one after the superimposition of the grid.[8] Though the grid was directly imposed on only a small area of Manhattan, the effects of the grid spread outwards, affecting a much larger amount of the Manhattan landscape in a domino effect. The grid created a sense of uniformity throughout the Manhattan landscape (with the exception of Central Park, which would be developed later[9]), imposing right angles and flatness where before there were curves and hills.
With the change and progression of the Manhattan landscape came the environmental transformation of it as well.[10]
There were various physical changes that occurred when the grid was etched onto the Manhattan landscape. Streets and avenues were cut through hills, creating a difference in elevation between roads and non-road land. Because of this, street grades (the slope and elevations of streets) often don't correspond with the areas immediately surrounding them.[11]

In this image,[12] which is a view of 42nd Street from 1861, the difference between the elevations of buildings and street level elevation can clearly be seen. The pieces of land with property on top of them remain at their natural elevation, while the rest of the ground has been cut away and smoothed. Steps can be seen leading up to the buildings, as they are so high above street level that they cannot be reached otherwise.

Further evidence of this can be seen in older neighborhoods. The elevation grades of buildings, and even locations such as parks, are higher than the paved streets surrounding them. In most cases, the non-street areas of land were built before the particular streets and avenues present now were cut. When the streets were paved, small chunks of land were carved away, leaving a depression in the landscape and creating a difference in grade between buildings and streets. Rather than rebuilding everything already on the land and evening out the different grades, the already present buildings remained. In order to reconcile the elevation differences, steps were added at the entrances to most buildings, creating a new, necessary, and widespread feature in many buildings.

In several places, however, buildings were knocked down to allow for the land to be leveled. New buildings were later constructed on these areas. According to Edward Spann, the problem with the grid is that it “did not determine the street grades required by the imposition of the grid on Manhattan's varied and often rugged terrain,”[13] so that when it was implemented, there was often an unaccounted for difference in the grades of the terrain.

The implementation of the grid required for the pre-existing topography to be leveled, creating generally flat, uniform surfaces.[14] The depression of the ground made for smoother terrain, which was easier to build upon and could easily utilize the maximum amount of space per square footage. This creates a view of the skyline that is more compact and flatter than ever before.

There were many “changes wrought in the face of this island by the present mode of leveling and filling... thus reducing it to a flat surface.”[15] Manhattan's varied natural landscape was transformed “from an Island of Hills into a Cartesian Flatland.”[16]

The grid was implemented “only by extensive landfill... implementing the plan, which required literally moving mountains, and paying for every ton of earth and rock displaced”[17] was a huge project with astounding consequences. The topography of the Manhattan island was leveled and constructed into a relatively flat surface – and this newly flattened surface reflected in the Manhattan skyline.

[1] The 1811 Commissioner’s Plan for Manhattan sought to regularize the city's erratic street patterns by applying a consistent grid.

William Bridges, “Map of the city of New York and island of Manhattan, as laid out by the commissioners appointed by the legislature,” Library of Congress, 1807, G3804.N4:2M3 1811 .B7

[2] Reuben Rose-Redwood. "Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan." PhD diss., Pennsylvania State University, 2002, 5.

[3] Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, “The iconography of Manhattan Island, 1498-1909,” New York: Arno Press., 1967, 1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Thomas Howdell, “A South East View of the City of New York in North America,” Museum of the City of New York, 1763, 51.48.2

[6] Taken by Carolyn Guerrero. “Skyline as seen from Brooklyn Heights,” 2014.

[7] Brown Brothers, “Manhattan Shore and Skyline,” New York Public Library, 1897.

[8] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 1.

[9] Gandy calls Central Park “an 843-acre strip of nature [that] cuts through the heart of Manhattan Island.”

Matthew Gandy, “Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City,” MIT Press, 2003, 153.

Sergey Semenov, “Central Park Panorama” , EPSON International Pano Awards, 2011.

[10] Rose-Redwood, Rationalizing the Landscape, 2

[11] Ibid.

[12] Egbert L. Viele, “View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street,” Museum of the City of New York, 1861, 28.153.215

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

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

[15] Stokes, The Iconography of Manhattan Island.

[16] Progression of the change in landscape of Manhattan

Image by Carolyn Guerrero

[17] Rebecca Shanor. “New York's Paper Streets: Proposals to Relieve the 1811 Gridiron Plan.” Master's diss., Colombia University, 1982, 58.