Monday, January 19, 2009

New Yorkers and Our Beloved Grid

What would New Yorkers do without their grid? This question crosses my mind every time I am forced to spend a few minutes on Google maps when someone asks me to meet them at Bleecker and Thompson. Why can’t we meet on 23rd and 6th? We both know where that is.

Whether or not you are a fan, you must admit that we New Yorkers take great comfort in the presence of the grid. We understand the grid. We can envision the grid. We appreciate that when out-of-towners come to visit, a street corner suffices as directions. No third right after the second stop sign across the street from the Starbucks. An avenue and a street is all they need. We know that when the numbers are increasing, we are heading North and that a right turn will get us going East. We enjoy saying things like “Evens go East” and “LPM” (Lexington, Park, Madison). Our favorite subways are the 123 and the 456 because they too understand and adhere to the principles of our beloved grid. We hate the F and the V and get uncomfortable when others tell us to use it. We still don’t understand why Lexington, Park, and Madison were spared numbers or why Fourth Avenue only sometimes exists, but we have come to accept these slight inconveniences because we realize that is not all that hard to remember. We have also come to accept and even embrace Broadway because we view it as the great hypotenuse of our city. We still don’t understand why it is there or who put it there, but there is something romantic about it, so we accept it as our own. Plus, it provides for some interesting architecture (more on this later) and irregularly shaped parks, so we have decided to forgive its presence. We, however, still meet with great resistance the byzantine and rather tortuous streets of Greenwich Village and Soho. We leave those streets to the artists, musicians, and writers among us who inhabit those areas and who have sufficient left brain capacity to decipher them.

So why does the grid exist in the first place? A little history lesson. We owe the presence of the grid to the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 formulated by Gouverneur Morris, lawyer John Rutherford, and a surveyor by the name of Simeon De Witt. The plan called for the orderly settlement of Manhattan between 14th Street and Washington Heights with 16 avenues running north/south and 155 orthogonal cross streets running east/west. The cross streets would all be 60 feet wide, except for 15, which would be 100 feet wide, and today make up the two-way cross-town streets (14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd etc). Two notable features of today’s city were left out of the plan. The first is Broadway, which had been carved out hundreds of years before the grid was erected. It was originally known as the Wickquasgeck Trail during the time of the Native American settlers and served as the main road of New Amsterdam when it was settled back in the 17th century. The second feature is Central Park, which was not even thought up until 1853, when the poet William Cullen Bryant and landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing led a push by many efficacious New Yorkers for a chic open-aired park.

From the moment the Commissioners Plan went from dream to reality, there has been much debate surrounding the grid. It provides comfort, sure, but is the myriad of right angles too puritanical? Is our inner creative genius somehow inhibited by the mindless rows of parallel lines? Would we have been better off with winding roads, circular parks, and cul-de-sacs abound? Should we have followed what Metropolis Magazine calls the “hub and spoke” model of Paris? The answers to these questions are too personal for me to answer for you. What I do know is that you will thank the grid the next time your college roommate visits from our of town and all you have to say is “17th and 7th…across the street from the Starbucks.”


  1. Viva La Grid


    Directionally dyslexic

  2. I read a report from the city a couple years ago about park avenue and how it used to be an above ground trolley prior to building the subway (which is why there is the grassy divider running up the middle). I believe it was in the proposal for the new Jets stadium then being lobbied for approval over the west side rail yards.
    You should search for it. Interesting stuff.