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How Manhattan Got Its Street Grid [Excerpt]

To accommodate a fast-growing New York City, John Randel, Jr., began to lay out the city’s streets in 1808—an impressive endeavor that holds lessons for today’s information infrastructure



From The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor

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.”

The summer had not brought Morrison and Rose-Redwood success, but it had delivered adventure. The two had climbed to the summit of Marcus Garvey Park, formerly Mt. Morris Park, at 120th Street and Fifth Avenue. That particular invisible intersection took them up a steep, slippery slope and into a campsite. The occupants “were not the Patagonia-wearing-type campers,” Morrison remarked, so he and Rose-Redwood had scrambled quickly away. Working at a long wooden table under the soaring ceiling of the New-York Historical Society library, they had struggled to decipher old documents and sketches. And they had observed the transit of Venus, a rare event during which the second planet can be seen as a small dark dot sailing across the bright surface of the sun. Transits occur in pairs, about eight years apart, every century or so. The 1761 transit was observed by Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon shortly before they surveyed the Mason-Dixon line. Morrison had brought his theodolite, a surveying instrument with a telescope, into Central Park in the early morning and set it up at Belvedere Castle.

Rose-Redwood and Morrison had been working together and exploring invisible intersections since late spring, when they met at a lecture given by Rose-Redwood about New York City’s 1811 grid plan. The grid plan—much adored and much abhorred, although the abhorrers have been perhaps more vocal—established a trellis for New York City to climb as it grew north from what was then North Street, now Houston Street, to 155th Street. In 1806 the city government had determined that New York was expanding too rapidly, without blueprint. Hoping to avoid the passionate, bitter debates that erupted whenever land sales or boundary issues arose, city politicians asked the state legislature to help. The politicians in turn recommended three commissioners who envisioned grid on unprecedented scale. With relatively few exceptions, most conspicuously Central Park, the kinked off-kilter route of Broadway, and the D.C.-like angle of St. Nicholas Avenue, New York City flowed into that form, like batter flowing into the grooves of a waffle iron.

Morrison and Rose-Redwood wanted to find a token from imagined New York, from the years when New Yorkers gave form to the dream of a grand metropolis. They wanted to find physical evidence for a plan some scholars have called “the single most important document in New York City’s development.”

“I think I am the one who found it,” Rose-Redwood later recalled. “But it really doesn’t matter.” The three seekers had fanned out around the GPS unit, which indicated that they were in the middle of yet another invisible nineteenth-century intersection, one now teeming with bicyclists, joggers, and horse-drawn carriages, one redolent with the prickly smell of manure. Several minutes of searching later, Rose-Redwood gave a shout. A dark brown bolt, about 1 inch square, jutted 3 inches out of a rock. It sat in a bed of lead. “We were really quite euphoric,” said Rose-Redwood.

They examined the bolt, discerning faint marks on its flat top—a kind of surveyor’s signature found on most such markers. They debated the bolt’s legitimacy. Rose-Redwood felt 85 percent sure it was a grid bolt but wondered if they could get a chemist to test the metal and perhaps date it so they could be positive. “What we need to be very cautious about is that there have been many surveys in Central Park since it was laid out in the 1850s and 1860s,” he fretted. “I mean, we might find something that is from a different survey.” Morrison was 99 percent sure, because to his mind, the location was too perfectly grid-aligned to be coincidence; they had found other bolts in the park that summer, but none of them corresponded to an 1811 intersection. They also began to feel protective of the bolt. They have suggested to the parks department that a small clear case be set protectively over it. The bolt would sit inside its box, upon its boulder, amid its city, which would sprawl around it, no longer wild, like poet Wallace Stevens’s jar upon its hill.

****

The man who set the bolt in that rock—or who, more likely, instructed his men to fracture the rock with gunpowder, plug the hole with lead, and anchor a 1-inch-square, 6-inch-long bolt— was named John Randel Jr. Hired in 1808 by the three state commissioners to plan the grid and then in 1810 by the city government to implement the grid, Randel hiked the island’s hills, waded through its creeks and marshes, and let the tide rise up to his shoulders for more than a decade as he laid down the grid plan. He measured each block, each street, each avenue with a precision that remains admired and relied on today by engineers, planners, and surveyors such as Morrison.

Despite his important role as inscriber of the grid, Randel, who lived from 1787 to 1865—a long life for that period—has been a historical shadow. A few scholars of cartography, urban planning, and infrastructure have in general briefly described Randel in their books as an eccentric, litigious fellow who was involved with many of the major infrastructure works of his time. Randel was indeed strikingly busy. In addition to surveying Manhattan and pinning the grid to the land, he surveyed and divided portions of wild terrain in upstate New York, and he designed towns there as well. He trudged hundreds of miles, laying out turnpikes and surveying routes for several of the country’s earliest railroads: the New Castle & Frenchtown in Delaware and Maryland, the Ithaca & Owego in New York, the Lykens Valley Railroad in Pennsylvania, the Delaware Railroad Co., and the Central of Georgia. For some of the railroads he served as engineer in chief, innovating and improvising solutions for the many problems that arose on these early American ventures. Randel sounded the Hudson River south of Albany, assessing how ships might more easily make the voyage up- and downriver from that important port. One winter he risked his health to map the islands of the St. Lawrence River. He was among the canal pioneers; he worked on the Delaware & Raritan Canal, the Erie Canal, the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal and did surveys for a Pennsylvania canal. He invented remarkable surveying instruments, an earth-toting tram, and was one of the first to dream up, design, and advocate for an elevated railroad in New York City. He had visions for suburban planning, for traffic flow and roads in Manhattan. He consulted on Baltimore’s water delivery system and New York’s sewage system.

Randel also created some of the most beautiful and detailed maps of his time, several of which are cartographic gems. On the nineteenth floor of One Centre Street, in the Manhattan borough president’s office, in the small room where the island’s official maps are kept and consulted hundreds of times every year, are ninety-two remarkable sheets of paper, carefully stored in four boxes. Each measures 32 by 20 inches; assembled, they would form a map 11 feet wide and 50 feet long, a map depicting the marshes, meadows, inlets, rocks, hills, barns, cider mills, property lines, ice houses, lanes, streets to come, fishermen’s shacks, and every other structure on, as well as natural feature of, Manhattan in the early nineteenth century. Another map sits in the collection of the Library of Congress, encased in Mylar. It is a 27-by-39-inch map of Manhattan that is part trompe l’oeil, in which the island sits on a scroll unfolding on top of a map of the northeastern states, while over the boroughs of Queens and Brooklyn a small map of Philadelphia unfurls. Randel artfully crafted three maps as one, and it is the only map known to combine this view and in such a manner. His precision and exactitude won him a legacy but also heaps of trouble, and his long life was fraught with conflict and disappointment.

Randel was both emblematic of his time and a visionary well ahead of his time. He was of the Enlightenment, born into a culture and a period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world—through exploration, experiment, science, cartography, and infrastructure—was celebrated. His was the era of laying lines on the land—lines for communication, for transportation of people and goods; lines for establishing nationhood, statehood, and individual ownership. Those are the lines, the geometry, that define much of the American landscape today. Randel also lived long enough to see the waning of some of the Enlightenment values he embraced and the ascension of the Romantic era. During his middle and old age, profound shifts in thinking about land, nature, and cities emerged; some of the most significant shifts took place in New York City and New York State, where Randel did much of his work.

Today, many ecologists and planners strive to lift the lines that people like Randel laid down. They do this to restore, to the fullest extent possible, the habitats of plants and animals—to put the natural curves back in canalized rivers, for instance, so the waters can flow as they once did. Planners and ecologists do this to ensure that ecosystems retain or regain some of their vibrancy, health, and well-being and that we retain and regain our connections to the natural world. They do this to try to ensure that our future is biologically diverse and sustainable, that cities become more livable. Many can do this only because Randel and surveyors like him kept meticulous, valuable records.

Randel’s beautiful maps and his careful measurements have been central to two innovative projects. Rose-Redwood used Randel’s data to discover how much the grid flattened the natural contours of the island’s hills. Landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson of the Wildlife Conservation Society has used Randel’s data to create a digital version and narrative of what the island might have looked like in 1609, when Henry Hudson and the crew of the Half Moon, arrived. Sanderson’s book Mannahatta and related online project, Welikia, have catalyzed new ways of thinking about how cities evolve.

Randel was convinced he was ensuring a wonderful future for Americans and for the city of New York. By many measures, he did. There is continuity between the methods Randel used to lay down infrastructure in the nineteenth century and the emergence of the modern information infrastructure, the satellite system, which governs many aspects of modern life and of surveying. Nineteenth-century infrastructure has also become in some places its own antidote: old rail lines live as bike paths, trails through woods, or a garden wending within a cityscape. Canals live as meandering, recreational rivers. And even as the grid plan of 1811 softened the extremes of the island’s topography, smoothing some undulations, it catalyzed a different kind of elevation: buildings grew tall; people who wanted to be on the vibrant island came to live densely. That density is leading New York City to grapple with its future in ways that resonate for people everywhere, for cities and urban areas now house more than half the world’s population.

This story of the once and future city begins at a bolt on a rock in a park on the island.

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