Manhattan’s Master Plan: Why NYC Looks the Way it Does

Gregory Wessner |
Where: The Museum of the City of New York
Opening: Dec. 6, 2011
Closing: Apr. 12, 2012
Suggested admission is $10 for adults, $6 for seniors and students. Free for children and members.

New Yorkers take it for granted that we can say things like “meet me at 85th Street and Third Avenue” and know that regardless of whether someone has been to that intersection, they will easily be able to get there. It’s all thanks to Manhattan’s legendary street grid, which celebrates its 200th anniversary this year.

A little history of the grid…

In 1807, frustrated by years of uncontrolled development and a decade of public health epidemics attributed to lower Manhattan’s cramped and irregular streets, New York City’s Common Council (the predecessor to today’s City Council) petitioned the State Legislature to develop a street plan for Manhattan above Houston Street, at that time a rural area of streams and hills populated by a patchwork of country estates, farms and small houses. The adoption four years later of the Commissioners’ Plan established the grid of 12 north-south avenues and 155 east-west streets that, though it would take most of the 19th century to build, continues to fundamentally shape life in New York.

But is something so infrastructural, something that’s taken for granted every day, really worth celebrating?

The grid is definitely worth celebrating — without it, New York might not be the great city it has become. That’s why the Museum of the City of New York and the Architectural League of New York have organized a pair of exhibitions about its past and future. The first of these exhibitions, “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” curated by architectural historian Hilary Ballon, traces the creation, implementation and evolution of the plan from 1811 through the 20th century. A tour de force of historical research that constitutes the first sustained examination of this subject, “The Greatest Grid” tells the story of a young New York that is full of optimism about its future and unafraid to take on bold challenges.


Jon Meacham takes a tour of “The Greatest Grid” at the Museum of the City of New York with curator Hilary Ballon.


One of the strengths of the grid has been its flexibility to accommodate irregular spaces over time. The image above is an oil painting from 1885 that imagines what the junction of Bowery and Broadway, the area that became Union Square, looked like during colonial times. The top image shows Union Square today. Composite image: Photos courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York and Flickr/U2wanderer.

Among its many keen insights, “The Greatest Grid” reveals how remarkably flexible Manhattan’s street grid has been over two centuries. To wit, the following were all later city additions unanticipated by the grid’s creators in 1811: Central Park and the superblock housing developments of 1960s urban renewal; Madison and Lexington avenues; the automobile and the subway; skyscrapers; the water system and the electricity grid; zoning resolutions and preservation districts. That the grid was able to accommodate them all while sustaining its essential character is a true testament to its flexibility, which Ballon has described as a “living framework, which enabled the city to grow and evolve over time.”

How might designers, developers and city officials continue to modify the grid in response to the challenges and opportunities that New York faces now and into the future?

To answer this question, the Architectural League and the museum, along with media sponsor Architizer, issued an international call for ideas that invited architects and urban designers from around the world to use the grid as a springboard for thinking about the city’s future.

More than 120 teams from 22 countries submitted proposals, from which a jury of architects and curators selected eight they believed offer the most insightful and provocative ideas for Manhattan’s grid.

Click the images below to see and read about the eight selected ideas:

These eight proposals are now on display in “The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan,” a sister exhibition to “The Greatest Grid.” If the submissions are any indication, Manhattan’s enduring power as architectural and urban muse is undiminished. The proposals are bold, ambitious and full of energy. They address a range of issues, from extending Manhattan’s edge to create sites for new building; to reconfiguring city streets to increase pedestrian space; to amending preservation and zoning regulations to foster alternative possibilities for development.

A portrait of Simeon De Witt, ca. 1804, one of the three commissioners behind the 1811 grid plan. At the time, imposing a grid of 2,028 blocks on land that was largely rural might have seemed outlandish, but strong leadership from city elders like De Witt and smart political maneuvering pushed the plan through. This painting is held by the Collection Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University. Photo by Jack Abraham.

How do idea competitions like this one benefit the city?

Many of the proposals will strike viewers as far-fetched or impractical, with little chance of ever being realized. But that is not the point. The proposals on view are not necessarily intended as literal recommendations for future projects, although there are certainly many good ideas in them that could be implemented to great impact. Rather, I hope that these eight proposals challenge us to remember that, like the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan itself, New York is a city that has the capacity and willingness to think big.

As inevitable — or invisible — as Manhattan’s grid may seem to us today, there was a moment, as Hilary Ballon points out, “when a set of city leaders reached a firm decision to establish [the street grid] and steadfastly held to it over strong objections from influential people.”

None of the proposals on view in “The Unfinished Grid” are more outlandish than the idea of imposing a grid of 2,028 blocks on land that was largely rural, for a city with a population at the time of 100,000 people. But that is exactly what makes New York such a glorious and thrilling place to live. The absurd and impractical and far-fetched take root here to offer new possibilities for how to live and work and play.

New Yorkers had to deal with the ongoing project of leveling land to make way for Manhattan's streets over the decades it took for the grid to be realized. In 1886, this pile of rocks sat at the corner of what is now 81st Street and Ninth Avenue. Photo by Robert L. Bracklow, courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

It’s the job of every New Yorker to embrace change.

Make no mistake: big ideas like the ones here require a commensurate level of commitment and sacrifice. But we should not forget that we ourselves are the beneficiaries of centuries of commitment and sacrifice on the part of the millions of New Yorkers who preceded us here.

Our 19th century forebears, resident in the city during the decades it took to fully realize the street grid, had to live through the blasting of Manhattan rocks and the clearing of soil, the laying out of streets and the endless building required to fill these new blocks with their first houses, shops and schools. I would expect that in true New York fashion, they complained and resisted and protested. But they also persevered. And it is only through their perseverance and their shared sacrifice that we have the dynamic city that we have today.

New York City is perhaps one of human history’s greatest works-in-progress. It is a city that is and should continue to be about the future, about possibility, about reinvention, both personal and architectural. It is our responsibility to have big ideas and the corresponding commitment to realize them, even in the face of the inconvenience of scaffolding and torn up streets and the sounds of construction. I hope that the projects on view in “The Unfinished Grid” challenge viewers to think of their own big ideas, so that we hand forward a greater New York to the people who follow us than the one in which we live now. It is a project not just for architects and developers and city officials, but one that should occupy all New Yorkers.

Gregory Wessner is an architectural historian and special projects director at the Architectural League of New York. He is curator of “The Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan.”

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