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Manhattan's Grid System Celebrated in 200th Anniversary Exhibit

By Della Hasselle | December 2, 2011 7:20am
Manhattanhenge drew out crowds of shutterbugs on Manhattan's cross streets Monday night.
Manhattanhenge drew out crowds of shutterbugs on Manhattan's cross streets Monday night.
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DNAinfo/Paul Lomax

MANHATTAN — It's the building block of the city.

A new exhibit at East Harlem's Museum of the City of New York celebrates the 200th anniversary of Manhattan's grid system — a plan that defines New York's unique and concentrated structure.

"The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811 — 2011" chronicles the history of Manhattan's streets and avenues, from the birth of the 1811 Commissioner's Plan to the grid's construction and development over the next two centuries.

Rare historical maps, original plans and photographs dating back as far as 1763 illustrate how the grid's production transformed Manhattan from rolling green hills and farmland to a bustling metropolis during the 19th century.

The 1811 plan specified numbered streets and avenues outlining equal rectangular blocks from what is now Houston Street to 155th Street, from First to 12th avenues.

The grid's forward-thinking nature is one of the most fascinating things about it, according to Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum.

"City commissioners anticipated New York’s propulsive growth and projected that the city — still relatively small at the time and concentrated in what is now lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village  — would extend to the heights of Harlem," she said.

"The 1811 plan has demonstrated remarkable longevity as well as the flexibility to adapt to two centuries of unforeseeable change, including modifications such as Broadway and Central Park. The real miracle of the plan was that it was enforced.” 

The exhibit contrasts the marked difference in the city's growth and transportation before and after the plan.

Highlights include maps created for the official 1811 plan by John Randel Jr., the surveyor, cartographer and civil engineer who surveyed the island before the grid was designed. His ten Randel Farm Maps are now considered among the most important records of a forgotten New York, according to a museum spokeswoman.

The exhibit shows over 200 other artifacts, including rare, detailed maps from 1776, photographs of the excavation required to implement the system during the next century and original documents that show street-by-street explanations of how the grid should be laid out.

Some of the most striking photographs on view are of the shanty towns that existed in the late 1800s, years after laborers had begun to pave the rugged and hilly landscape in 1860.

Decades after the grid was outlined with iron rods, wooden shacks nestled amongst rugged dirt hills and piles of firewood, a demonstration of the stark transformation the city underwent in the next century.

The exhibit also notes reactions to the grid over time by various political figures, writers, historians and artists, including Thomas Jefferson and Jane Jacobs. 

In one example, a journalist from the 1950's marvels over the precision of the measurements and design; in another, 19th century journalist and social critic Frederick Law Olmstead gripes about the design's lack of monuments or ornamental features.

The museum, however, highlights the poetic marvel of architect Rem Koolhaas.

The grid is “the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization:  the land it divides, unoccupied; the population it describes, conjectural; the buildings it locates, phantoms; the activities it frames, nonexistent," Koolhaas is quoted as saying.