The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011, edited by Hilary Ballon, accompanies an excellent exhibit of the same name at the Museum of the City of New York. The book and exhibit explore the importance of the grid, and the influence which it has had on New York City.
“Of all of the treasures of New York City, perhaps none is more hidden in plain sight than the famous numbered streets and avenues that provide the framework of life on Manhattan Island.” In this light, the book is akin to Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. It informs readers how the City received it shape, a defining element most now take for granted.
The book appears to have three goals; it delves into the history of the grid, the people who created it, and most importantly how it has shaped the City. The grid’s creation story began in the 1780s with Casimir Goerck, and other surveyors whose names have been long forgotten. He was joined in 1797 by Joseph Mangin, a fellow city surveyor. However, it was only in 1807 with the appointments of Gouverneur Morris, Simeon DeWitt, and John Rutherford that the grid was destined to become a reality. How these personalities attained their appointments, and their impact on the grid, is well detailed in the book.
After designing the above map, it was up to John Randel, Jr. to transfer the Commissioners’ vision to the streets. Over the course of fourteen years, he completed detailed maps of Manhattan and finally, placed markers at the location of future streets. It was a surprise to learn about the adversities he faced in this task. Many New Yorkers at the time saw the grid as an attempt to steal their land and did everything in their power, included stealing the stone monuments that marked the located of the future streets, to stop the grid’s implementation!
The anecdotes and episodic stories that range in topic from the reactions of New Yorkers to the gird, to the tools and maps used by the surveyors, to the evolution of different streetscapes make this book a fascinating and informative read. The accompanying photographs and prints bring to life the stories and events. The different maps that were created to facilitate the grid, a photograph of a theodolite (a surveyor’s tool), and the many prints and photographs of the City’s changing landscape allow readers to travel through time and vicariously live through the two centuries of history discussed in this book.
Along with conveying the history of the grid and its future potential, the book lays the foundation for the claim that New York City would not be the city with which we are familiar had the grid never existed. If New York City had been designed like Haussmann’s Paris or like L’Enfant’s Washington DC, would we no longer recognize it? While the grid’s underlying influence is undeniable, the role of real estate developers and zoning laws, which have had at least as great an influence on shaping New York City, is somewhat overlooked.
The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011 is a well researched and enjoyable read. The illustrations coupled with the history provide an unparalleled look at the evolution of the gird over the past two centuries. This book is a must for any cartographer, urban historian, or just curious New Yorker.