Three Things Veteran New Yorkers Might Not Know About Their City

Three Things Veteran New Yorkers Might Not Know About Their City

9780306822841Slow down, city slicker. You may be a born-and-bred New Yorker, but we bet you don’t know everything about this incredible city. In Gerard Koeppel’s City on a Grid, he covers the true story of the three men who set out to change the landscape of New York and bring order to the city. Here, Koeppel shares three facts about the Big Apple that even Manhattanites might not know.

Manhattan might look like Paris… if not for Aaron Burr

In 1803, architect-surveyor and French exile Joseph Francois Mangin offered the first plan for the future growth of the city beyond its jumbled colonial streets at the southern tip of Manhattan. Mangin envisioned segments of grid of varying size, density, orientation, and natural situation, resulting in, among other attractive things, many incidental open spaces for casual public gathering. It was sophisticated urbanity adapted to a narrow, hilly island: a future city in tune with its naturalistic setting.

The city government—then undersized, annually elected, and often indecisive—loved it, briefly; Dr. Joseph Browne, Jr., the city’s single street official, did not, immediately. Browne knew little about streets; he had been appointed recently through the influence of bad boy brother-in-law Aaron Burr, who had been taking charge of city politics. Out with Hamilton’s fading Federalists; in with the New York branch of rising Jeffersonian Democrats.

Burr had a beef with Mangin, a Hamilton favorite. Some months earlier, Mangin (with a partner) had won the design competition for a new (and now landmark) City Hall. Burr had guaranteed his protégé, Philadelphia-based Benjamin Latrobe, the future “Father of American Architecture,” that he would win. Latrobe, furious, vowed never to design a New York building. He kept his promise. Burr, vengeful, set pliant Browne the task of trashing Mangin’s development plan. And, months after the city government heralded “the new map of the city,” out it went.

Eight years later, a state commission announced a dense, nature-flattening, right-angled street grid: scores of parallel streets crossed by a dozen parallel avenues, with nary a plaza, piazza, park, or public place to be seen.

The famous Manhattan street grid is stolen goods

Mangin’s plan was discarded, but the city government did realize that having any sort of plan for the haphazardly expanding town might be a good idea. At the city’s behest, the state in 1807 appointed a three-man commission–irascible Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, venerable state surveyor-general Simeon De Witt, and major New Jersey landowner John Rutherfurd–with absolute authority to come up with a binding plan in four years time. Unlike the deep commitment of Morris and De Witt on the contemporaneous commission creating the state- and nation-transforming Erie Canal, the Manhattan street commission was mostly a distraction for its members.

Finally, with the clock ticking down, they opted not for something new and inspired, but something borrowed, without credit: the expansion an old plan for the Common Lands, a tract of undesirable city-owned “waste” land, some 1,300 acres in the alternately hilly, swampy, and still remote center of the island. Back in mid-1790s, the cash-poor city government, hoping to parcel out and sell off its Common Lands, had hired surveyor Casimir Goerck–Polish-born and married into the Roosevelt family of future presidents–to map them. Goerck laid out three parallel north-south roads 920 feet apart, creating two central stacks of five-acre rectilinear lots each 260 feet tall, the northerly 60 of those feet designated for parallel cross streets that were never laid.

Sales of these large, exurban lots were relatively few, but a generation later, the Morris-dominated commission placed their 4th, 5th, and 6th Avenues exactly where Goerck’s East, Middle, and West roads had partially materialized, put 60-foot-wide streets 200 feet apart along the lines of Goerck’s phantom streets, and created thousands of roughly five-acre blocks. In its brief report announcing its plan, the Morris commission never once mentioned the Common Lands or Goerck. The commission just expanded Goerck’s map ten-fold over the island and with little fanfare called it a day.

No commissioner, even the prolific Morris, ever fully explained their decisions. Perhaps they were embarrassed, or just didn’t care. In any case, the great and famous grid of Manhattan is not much more than Goerck writ large. Goerck, by the way, had nothing to say about it. He had died young and suddenly of yellow fever in 1798, while working with Joseph Mangin on the early stages of the plan that Burr and Browne scuttled in 1803, the scuttling that led to the grid that appropriated Goerck’s earlier work! Alas, poor Goerck, we hardly know ye.

Central Park and Broadway: not in the plan

Ok, you say, there are two big breaks in the supposedly unbroken, rectilinear Manhattan grid: a really big park and a long diagonal boulevard. You’re right, but neither was in the dense grid plan of 1811. If it seemed “a matter of surprise” that their plan included only a few small, vacant spaces “for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health,” the commissioners contended that New York didn’t lie beside “a small stream such as the Seine or the Thames” which required open city spaces. No, “large arms of the sea…embrace Manhattan island render[ing] its situation, in regard to health and pleasure…peculiarly felicitous.”

By the early 1850s, worried New Yorkers realized that the grid, gradually creeping northward, was becoming a peculiarly infelicitous urban prison that no river breezes would relieve. The grid’s saving grace, Central Park, wrested from the grid (and mostly former Common Lands), was born, in a design competition won by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux. Their naturalistic plan with serpentine pathways avoided right angles at all costs.

As to Broadway, which started down in the colonial part of town and continued as bucolic Bloomingdale Road linking country settlements up the rolling western side of the island, the commissioners intended to dead-end it at their 14th Street. Gradually over several decades, segments of Broadway earned legal reprieves, eventually emerging as the gracefully arcing spine that delivers a measure of randomness, relief, and beauty to the city on a grid.   

Gerard Koeppel is the author of City on a Grid: How New York became New York (Da Capo Press).


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