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Editor’s note: A few years ago, researchers began looking for the earliest evidence of Manhattan’s iconic grid plan, which places streets and avenues along mostly horizontal and vertical directions (in contrast to the spoke-and-wheel layouts of cities such as London or Paris). In particular, they were hunting long-lost surveying marks left by a complicated young man named John Randel, Jr., whose maps helped establish the shape of New York City. The following is adapted from the book, The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor, by Marguerite Holloway (W. W. Norton, 2013). Copyright © Marguerite Holloway.
On a hot June late afternoon in 2004, three people approached the southern drive of Central Park with maps, 10 pounds of high-tech gear, and a growing sense of frustration. They had been climbing rocks, poking in bushes, and scraping at dirt for much of the day, slowly making their way down from the northern reaches of the park. J. R. Lemuel Morrison, a New York City surveyor, wore his reflective orange traffic vest and carried over his shoulder a long pole with a white-and-red GPS unit attached. Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood, then a doctoral student in geography at Pennsylvania State University, and Cindy Ann Rampersad, a social geographer now married to Rose-Redwood, passed a sheaf of maps back and forth and took turns carrying a metal detector. It was Rampersad’s first day out with Morrison and Rose-Redwood, but she had been listening to tales of their forays for two months and was eager to join them. Central Park’s southern drive undulates above 59th Street, above a pond and an ice-skating rink. The park’s designers, Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, intended the entrance at 59th Street and Fifth Avenue to be the grand one, the “handsomest” approach. The routes from that corner weave north, leading amblers toward the only straight path in the park, the Mall. Passionately antilinear, Olmsted and Vaux made a single exception so visitors could move directly to the core of the park: the Ramble and the Lake.
The southbound trio stopped several times along the Mall, checking GPS coordinates, scrutinizing maps, examining a rock sitting behind a fence and a PLEASE KEEP OUT sign, and rummaging through a patch of periwinkle until they became worried they would attract onlookers or, worse, someone who worked in the park. Just to the west, a film crew had given Sheep Meadow a nineteenth-century cast by releasing ruminants to populate a scene in a romantic comedy. When they reached the southern end of the Mall and the statue of William Shakespeare, Morrison, Rose-Redwood, and Rampersad checked the maps again. They were looking for the relic of an invisible intersection, one city leaders had planned to build in 1811 but that had never been constructed. For Morrison and Rose-Redwood, finding such a relic had become an obsession—an obsession with a little-explored part of New York City’s history, an obsession with those rare moments when past, present, and future overlap, and an obsession with a mysterious man whose remarkable precision was proving as invaluable today as it had two centuries earlier.
Morrison held the range pole steady, turned on the GPS unit, and hoped it would pick up the signal of at least five satellites, which would give him his location to within 5 centimeters. Morrison wears his brown hair long, his glasses rectangular. He is fond of paraphrasing Admiral Grace Hopper: “It is easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission.” By laying a digitized map of planned but never realized intersections on top of satellite photographs of the park, Morrison could trace the old city atop the new. But every other invisible intersection they had checked that summer had disappointed. Rose-Redwood—five foot eight, dark-haired, with an easy laugh--felt hot, sweaty, and a bit crestfallen: “You spend hours looking and you don’t find anything... But unless you start digging, you are not going to find anything more.”