The Greatest Grid


Building the Grid: From Paper to Street, Block and Lot

“Nothing is to be left unmolested which does not coincide with the street-commissioner’s plummet and level. These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome.”

Clement Clarke Moore, 1818
Profile of the Twelve Avenues (Detail)

The miracle of the 1811 plan was that it was enforced. It took about 60 years for the grid to be built up to 155th Street, 60 years during which the grid prevailed while mayors and administrations, interest groups, and aesthetic values frequently changed and might have undermined the plan. Read More New York sustained a multigenerational commitment to its first major infrastructure project—a rarity in the history of master plans, which are more often ignored or forgotten than implemented.

From the start, the 1811 plan was contested by displaced property owners, including the most powerful citizens of New York. John Jacob Astor was one such petitioner who tried to keep the grid off his land by arguing that the Common Council had exceeded its proper authority. The council countered by establishing street openings as a core responsibility of the government. “Evils,” they warned, “would grow out of a measure that shall take from the Corporation the power of completing the plans for the permanent regulation of the Streets and Avenues.”

The grid was not imposed on a blank slate and required a dramatic change in boundaries and land ownership as well as an expansion of municipal authority. The city had to expropriate land from private owners to build streets; big estates were subdivided into rectangular blocks; and the squaring-off process left others with smaller, odd-shaped properties.

Opening streets was a multistep process, managed by a government bureaucracy that grew to have great power in the 19th century and then retreated once the grid was built out. The city’s first step was to assess the value of property adjacent to a new street and to calculate how much the new street would increase land values. Before long it was clear that street openings raised land values, and owners clamored for improvements on their streets. Show Less