Manhattan History – The Gridiron Plan Of 1807-11

MOST of Manhattan is laid out on a gridiron plan originated in 1807 by three Commissioners, Gouverneur Morris, Simeon Dewitt, and John Rutherfurd, and approved by the Legislature in 1811. Since the built-up Lower Town could not be disturbed, the Commissioners had an entirely free hand only from Thirteenth Street north, the most southerly street to cross the island completely from east to west. While there was vacant land available below that latitude in the center of the island and toward the east, Greenwich Village, with its hit-or-miss streets, must be respected, and to this day the straight east-to-west course of the streets from First to Fourteenth is either blocked at Greenwich Village or twisted so awry that actually West Fourth Street crosses West Twelfth Street. However, nothing daunted, the Commissioners started their plan as far south as they could, and adapted it where other-wise necessary. Consequently the limit of settlement in 1807 is fairly indicated by the plan. On the East side, Houston Street is the last unnumbered street east of the Bowery; from that point settlements straggled northwestward to Greenwich Village.

Gazing upon the Manhattan of farm and orchard, cliff and waste land, and pondering its future prayer-fully, the Commissioners decided in favor of twelve broad north and south avenues, 100 feet in width, running from the built-up section to 155th Street, and one of them—Tenth Avenue—extending farther north to the Kingsbridge over the Harlem.

These avenues were spaced as follows:

650 feet between First and Second avenues 610 feet between Second and Third ‘avenues 926 feet between Third and Fourth avenues 926 feet between Fourth and Fifth avenues 800 feet between Fifth and Sixth avenues

And so on to the Hudson River.

The cross-streets ranged from 60 to 100 feet in width, with from 199 to 203 feet in the intervening blocks. The wide streets, always more favored than the others, were 14th, 23d, 34th, 42d, 57th, 72d, 86th, 96th, 110th, 116th, 125th, 155th. It was thought that Second Avenue would become the favorite residential thoroughfare, but Fifth early usurped that proud position.

Considering the physical limitations of the terrain, from one and one quarter to one and one half miles in width and from six and one half to eleven and one half miles in length, the Commissioners probably could not have worked out a better plan for all purposes—residences, trade, and horsedrawn transport. Their report, an admirable presentation of their logic and foresight, issued in 1811, contains the following:

. . . that one of the first objects that claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say whether they should confine them-selves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals and stars, which certainly embellished a plan whatever might be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight sided and right angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive.

Having determined therefore that the work should be in general rectangular, a second, and in their opinion, an important consideration, was so to amalgamate it with the plans already adopted by individuals as not to make any important change in their dispositions.

This, if it could have been effected consistently with the public interest, was desirable, not only as it might render the work more generally acceptable, but also as it might be the means of avoiding expense. It was therefore, a favorite object with the Commissioners, and pursued until after various unsuccessful attempts had proved the extreme difficulty, nor was it abandoned at last but from necessity. To show the obstacles which frustrated every effort can be of no use. It will perhaps be more satisfactory to each person who may feel aggrieved to ask himself whether his sensations would not have been still more unpleasant had his favorite plan been sacrificed to preserve those of a more fortunate neighbor. If it should be asked why was the present plan adopted in preference to any other, the answer is, because, after taking all circumstances into consideration, it appeared to be the best; or, in other and more popular terms, attended with the least inconvenience.

It may be to many a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and the consequent preservation of health. Certainly if the City of New York was destined to stand on the side of a small stream such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful. But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan Island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure, as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous. When, therefore, from the same causes the prices of land are so uncommonly great, it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence than might, under circumstances of a different kind, have consisted with the dictates of prudence and the sense of duty. . . . The City of New York contains a population already sufficient to place it in the ranks of cities of the second order and is rapidly advancing towards a level with the first. It is perhaps no unreasonable conjecture that in half a century—it will be closely built up to the northern boundary of the parade and contain four hundred thousand souls. . . .

To some it may be a matter of surprise that the whole island has not been laid out as a city. To others it may be a subject of merriment that the Commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China. They have in this respect been governed by the shape of the ground. It is not improbable that considerable numbers may be collected at Harlem before the high hills to the south-ward of it shall be built upon as a city; and it is improbable that (for centuries to come) the grounds north of Harlem Flat will be covered with houses. To have come short of the extent laid out might, therefore, have defeated just expectations; and to have gone further might have furnished material to the pernicious spirit of speculation. . . .


The plan of 1811 has been changed somewhat, for better and for worse, too, and is out of favor in the eyes of modern city planners coping with traffic conditions which the Commission could not have foreseen. It is now easy to appreciate that the Manhattan of the present would be better served if the number of north-and-south avenues had been doubled, and the number of cross streets cut in half, since north-andsouth traffic is now the more demanding; but that was not the case in 1811 or for almost a century later. The wide stretches between Third and Fourth avenues and between Fourth and Fifth eventually were broken down to make way for intermediate Madison and Lexington avenues. The original intention to eliminate Broadway, denying it a connection with Bloomingdale Road and the Albany Post Road, fortunately for posterity, had to be abandoned under pressure of public opinion and realty interest. St. Nicholas Avenue, formerly the Harlem Lane to Kingsbridge, was also threatened but survived to excellent purpose as a diagonal thoroughfare.

On two other counts the planners of 1807—11 are occasionally taken to task. They are accused of making too scanty provision for open spaces, although they did provide for ten public squares and three triangles, 470 acres in all. The truth is that, under the standards of that day, this was a generous provision, since not all the space so provided remained in public use. Later action cut the parade ground of more than twenty acres down to the skimpy six acres of present Madison Square. Central Park does not appear in the plan of 1807; it was an inspired afterthought, dating from 1859, after yellow fever epidemics had established the salubrity of that area and the citizens had learned to appreciate open spaces.

The other charge brought against the 1811 plan is its failure to provide diagonal throughfares from northeast to southwest and from northwest to south-east across the island. The hard-and-fast rectangular or gridiron arrangement adopted makes extra travel necessary in nearly every long errand undertaken in New York City. A great part of the utility and value of Broadway rests in the fact that it cuts athwart the checkerboard of Manhattan, crossing more than half of its north-and-south avenues. For lack of a similar outlet the East Side in the planned area has consistently lagged behind the West Side. We can understand why the Commissioners in 1807 should vote against the use of circles, ovals and stars in street lay-outs, even though those were in favor at the moment at the National Capital, but they might well have borrowed the idea of diagonals from L’Enfant’s Washington plan.

However, the outstanding marvel is that New York received any plan at all in 1811, and that the Commissioners chosen should have read the future well enough to run their rulers as far north as 155th Street, thus regulating an area capable of accommodating nearly twenty times the 1807 population. Here was a city of 85,000 laying itself out for a population of close to 2,000,000. Of course the Commissioners did not reckon with skyscrapers, elevateds, and subways, nor with the compressibility of human nature, and so they modestly said their planned area would serve 400,000 souls. Actually 2,000,000 have packed them-selves within the 1807 plan. For the city of 85,000 population to project itself into even a 400,000 future is extraordinary enough.

Thereafter the avenues were certain to develop as arteries. The first burst of enthusiasm for elevated transit helped to make the Sixth Avenue crossing of Broadway at Herald Square a shopping center, but brought only temporary prosperity to the other elevated-covered avenues—Ninth, Third and Second. The central avenue, Fifth, succeeding the old Middle Road which split Manhattan in two, was destined to greatness from its start on Washington Square, though its aristocratic character was not firmly fixed until Central Park was created; and where the Park ends, there ends Fifth Avenue for all the purposes of style and dignity which commend it to the imagination of America.