<b>Are Manhattan's Right Angles Wrong?</b>
Streetscapes | The Commissioners' Plan of 1811
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY
<i>The New York Times</i>
October 23, 2005
TO many, the inflexible grid of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, which made Manhattan's streets an iron fist of right angles, was the worst planning mistake ever made in the city. It has been condemned almost since it was laid down. But these days, some opinions are changing. Critics are providing a reassessment, and several find sunshine in the borough's straight lines.
In 1807, the City Council got state approval to establish a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan. Three influential New Yorkers - John Rutherfurd, Gouverneur Morris and Simeon De Witt - were given power to establish a permanent system. De Witt, a surveyor, had drafted military maps in the Revolutionary War and was working with Morris on the Erie Canal project.
The grid idea was already popular in other cities - even the baroque diagonals of Washington were overlaid on a right-angled crisscross of streets. In 1811, the New York commissioners published their eight-foot-long map, showing 12 main north-south avenues and a dense network of east-west streets for much of Manhattan, with the old angled road of Broadway meandering through.
Their stated goals were "a free and abundant circulation of air" to combat disease, and an overpowering rectangularity, since "straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build."
Their report anticipated criticism by disdaining the "circles, ovals and stars, which certainly embellish a plan" - perhaps a reference to Pierre L'Enfant's 1791 layout for Washington. But otherwise they remained silent on most features of the New York version, making no remarks on their ideas for traffic - why a tight network of east-west roads but only occasional north-south ones? How did they fix the spacing of the occasional wider east-west streets - starting at 14th and going up in erratic separations to 155th?
And what determined the irregular spacing of the numbered avenues? The distance between First and Second Avenues was 650 feet; Second and Third, 610 feet; Third through Sixth, 920 feet from block to block; Sixth to 12th, 800 feet per block. (Lexington and Madison Avenues are later insertions.)
Finally, why did the long axis of the blocks run perpendicular to the waterfront? Several pre-1811 mini-grids had the long axis run parallel to the water.
This kind of progress was not for everyone. "These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome," said Clement Clarke Moore in his 1818 "A Plain Statement, Addressed to the Proprietors of Real Estate, in the City and County of New-York."
Likewise, Thomas Janvier's 1894 book "In Old New York" criticized the commissioners as "excellently dull gentlemen" whose plan was only "a grind of money-making." This remains the traditional account of the 1811 plan - which Janvier considered an arid, thoughtless solution that ignored existing topography, did not allow for vistas and neglected to include rear service alleys.
In 200 years of criticism, there has been serious reflection on the details of the plan in only the last decade or two. One such investigator is Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood, a Ph.D. candidate in the department of geography at Pennsylvania State University. His 2002 master's thesis - "Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid Upon the Island of Manhattan" - defends the commissioners' vision.
Mr. Rose-Redwood closely researched the writings of the commissioners in other areas, as well as the voluminous field notes of John Randel Jr., who mapped the plan. Where others saw only a throwaway design, he perceives a purposeful Cartesian aesthetic of "symmetry, order and proportion." And he draws the analogy of a nascent empire as great as Rome - which was well-known for the grid plan it imposed on new settlements in conquered territories.
Mr. Rose-Redwood is one of the few to rethink the grid. The default criticism still rules in encyclopedias, histories and journalism, where it is generally accepted that New York would be so much better with curving streets wrapping around hills, with broad diagonals and intricate networks of alleys and cul-de-sacs.
But these days, several long-time observers of cities have unexpected reactions.
Ada Louise Huxtable, former architecture critic for The New York Times, acknowledges the grid's drawbacks but adds that "after being out of New York for six months, I am so happy to get back to straight streets - and you get that wonderful straight-line view of the sunsets and sunrises" on certain days.
The architect and historian John Montague Massengale sees nuances in patterns of right angles, saying in an e-mail that "there's nothing wrong with a grid - but gridirons are boring and monotonous."
"The New York grid," he writes, "is best where there are interruptions and variety: short blocks, open places like Gramercy Park and different types of streets together like Park Avenue and its side streets, or Broadway and its side streets." He says he would leave the grid but add open squares, using some to provide vistas and terminal features for streets.
Andrés Duany - a "new urbanist" whose firm, Duany Plater-Zyberk, has helped transform planning for American towns, with cozy, planned communities like Seaside in Florida - said he admires many aspects of New York's relentless grid. "It distributes traffic very efficiently," he said, "and true urbanists understand how efficiently it accommodates so many people, without sprawl."
He added that "the lack of rear alleys means in New York everything's on the street, like the trash pickup - New York survives because of the high quality of its public services."
Mr. Duany said he likes the bigger, wider avenues because they attract retail and commercial uses, leaving the side streets as more private spaces. If given the opportunity to rebuild New York from the ground up, he said, "I'd leave it exactly the way it was."