Monday, March 21, 2011

Happy 200th Birthday Oh Mighty Manhattan Grid

On March 22, 1811, almost exactly 200 years ago, the New York Times reports today, Manhattan laid down its now famous grid that changed the city forever. This was one of two transformational reforms pushed by New York City Mayor and State Governor DeWitt Clinton back in the second decade of the nineteenth century (the other being the Erie Canal) that utterly changed the face of the City. The grid plan was part of the effort to develop the northern four-fifths of Manhattan. By laying out an entirely predictable rectangular pattern of numbered East-West and North-South streets, extending from Fourteenth Street all the way to Washington Heights, a pattern was established for expanding Manhattan in a relatively orderly manner. No circles, ovals, rotaries or diagonals to confuse residents and developers. Rather, as The Encyclopedia of New York City explains, the plan for 12 long north-south avenues was combined with the plan’s “signature” – “155 cross streets placed only two hundred feet apart, producing a grid of about two thousand long, narrow blocks.” Although this plan was tinkered with over the years, including the addition of great thoroughfares like Lexington and Madison and the introduction of the one street that did not follow a predictable route – Broadway – the grid survived largely intact, just about ensuring the rapid development of upper Manhattan.

For ordinary folks like me, though, the grid is a safety net, a way to orient myself so that even if I go in the wrong direction for a block or two, I can always find my way back again. Paired with the incomparable subway system, the grid makes the whole borough accessible and navigable to pedestrians. That is something that often goes unrecognized and makes Manhattan such an inviting place to explore. Phillip Lopate, writing in his wonderful Waterfront: A walk around Manhattan, comments that those who deride the grid as boring have overlooked the grid’s “power to invoke clarity, resonance, and pleasure through its very repetitions.” It is that underlying structure, then, that solid, reliable base of comprehensible quadrilaterals that help to make possible Manhattan’s endless creativity and inventiveness.

In the meantime, back on the level of my mundane Manhattan existence, it would probably do me good to leave Manhattan more often so that I could get lost occasionally, but while I contemplate that little notion, I can take solace in the fact that when I’m in Manhattan above Fourteenth Street, I can’t possibly lose my way (unless I venture into Central Park, but that’s another wonderful story). Which means I am freed to go places and try things without fear of becoming hopelessly disoriented. There is something, both literally and figuratively, quite liberating in that.

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