A fascinating new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” commemorates “the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, the foundational document that established Manhattan’s famous street grid.”
Michael Kimmelman writes that the grid was “big government in action, a commercially minded boon to private development and, almost despite itself, a creative template.” Grid plans for cities had existed for millennia, but imposing such a plan on Manhattan was “deeply subversive” because the land had already been divided up into privately owned sections. Hence the hand of government: decades of surveying, redrawing property lines, transforming open fields into paved streets — and sometimes meeting with resistance from the public. As curator Hilary Ballon says elsewhere: “What I found absolutely remarkable […] was how the city had a commitment to executing this vision, which required a pretty significant transformation in how the city worked — a greater degree of governmental authority, changes in the taxation system to fund this road building, and a multigenerational commitment to its implementation.” The grid, in other words, serves as a prime example of why government matters, and what ambitious long-term government planning can accomplish.
With an indispensable caveat, of course: that, as Kimmelman says, “[a]n equitable and just city today depends on a vigilant populace keeping tabs on our planners and politicians.”
He also explores the metaphysics of the grid:
[T]he grid has proved itself oddly beautiful.
I’m referring not just to the sociability it promotes, which Jane Jacobs identified, or to the density it allows, which Rem Koolhaas celebrates, or even to the ecological efficiency it sustains, which now makes New York, on a per-capita basis, a very green place. I’m also referring to a kind of awareness it encourages.
It’s true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street. […]
The grid also makes a complex place instantly navigable. This isn’t a trivial benefit. Cities like Berlin and London, historic agglomerations of villages, include vast nowhere stretches, and they sprawl in ways that discourage easy comprehension and walking. An epicenter of diversity, Manhattan by contrast invites long walks, because walkers can judge distances easily and always know where they are. The grid binds the island just as New Yorkers are bound by a shared identity.
That is, the grid gives physical form to a certain democratic, melting-pot idea — not a new concept, and probably not exactly what the planners had in mind, but worth restating. In the same way that tourists who come to Manhattan can easily grasp the layout and, as such, feel they immediately possess the city, outsiders who move here become New Yorkers simply by saying so. By contrast, an American can live for half a century in Rome or Hamburg or Copenhagen or Tokyo but never become Italian or German or Danish or Japanese. Anybody can become a New Yorker. The city, like its grid, exists to be adopted and made one’s own.
Read the whole review (and see a slideshow) here.
(Photo by Todd Heisler)