"The Greatest Grid"

See secrets behind the innovative plan to number NYC's streets.

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  • Photograph: Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: J.S. Johnston/Courtesty Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Matt Flynn/Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Robert L. Bracklow/Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Jacob A. Riis/Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Jacob A. Riis/Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

  • Photograph: Courtesy Museum of the City of New York

Photograph: Museum of the City of New York

The drafting of Manhattan's numbered grid was a landmark achievement in the city's history. To mark the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners' Plan of 1811, which proposed the organized design, the Museum of the City of New York is celebrating with an exhibit about the document. We spoke to curators Hilary Ballon and Andrea Renner about spots that were accounted for in the plan and a few that weren't:

Photograph: New York City Municipal Archives

1

  First Street and First Avenue: Kramer once referred to it as "the nexus of the universe" on Seinfeld, and in one sense this intersection is the origin for the x and y axes on Manhattan's grid. This is why First Street is not parallel to Houston Street.

2

  14th Street: This broad thoroughfare was one of 15 crosstown streets designed to be 100 feet wide, rather than the usual 60. It also was the first street in the grid to run the entire width of the borough because the plan's authors didn't want to bisect the already existing village of Greenwich.

3

  Gramercy Park: You can thank developer Samuel Ruggles for this private sanctuary. A lawyer and real estate developer, Ruggles carved the park out of his own property in order to raise the value of his land in the 1830s. He gated the park to ensure its privacy, and donated it to nearby landowners who needed a key to enter—a system which remains in place today. Lexington Avenue was also Ruggles' idea, as it made access to his land easier (which again improved its value).

4

  Broadway at 23rd Street: The awkward intersection between Broadway and Fifth Avenue was never meant to be. The grid's Broadway was intended to end at 23rd Street. That stretch was supposed to be the southern edge of a rectangular field called the Parade, envisioned as a military exercise ground. The Parade ultimately proved too expensive to build.

5

  Central Park: The center of our current grid was not one of the seven parks included in the Commissioners' Plan. As Manhattan's population quadrupled between 1821 and 1855 and the borough's few open spaces became increasingly packed, the state eventually purchased 700 acres between 59th and 106th streets for a grand park in 1853.

6

  St. Nicholas Avenue: This route from 111th to 168th Streets, formerly known as Harlem Lane, was left off the original plan. When Central Park opened in 1857, city leaders decided to keep this pre-grid street. It officially became part of the map in 1866.

7

  Amsterdam Avenue at 118th Street: Because of the Upper West Side's hilly terrain, engineers had difficulty building the plans as they were sketched on paper on upper Manhattan's steep cliffs. (and Lexington Avenue at 103rd Street are two spots that still feel downright mountainous.) In areas where the city is particularly mountainous parks—Riverside, Morningside and St. Nicholas among them—became the fix.

PLOT IT: "The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811--2011," Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Ave between 103rd and 104th Sts (212-534-1672; mcny.org). Daily 10am--6pm; $6--$10. Tue 6--Apr 15.

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2 comments
bed and breakfast luray
bed and breakfast luray

Thanks for sharing this post. It is really an innovate plan and it clearly facilitates citizens.

Adrianne
Adrianne

A very interesting article. Now I can call 1St and 1Ave the nexus of the universe with confidence. I am going to check out this exhibit.