The Greatest Grid


19th-Century Development

Squares, Parks and New Avenues

As the city built the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, it also modified its form, tailoring the grid to better fit New York’s evolving needs. City officials quickly discovered that the plan had too few squares, parks, and north–south thoroughfares for a burgeoning metropolis, and over the course of the plan’s first half century, they reenvisioned the distribution of public spaces for assembly, commerce, recreation, and circulation. Most significantly, they created Central Park. Read More

In their “Remarks,” the commissioners explained that New York’s high land values had led them to curb the number of public squares and parks in their plan, believing that the city’s surrounding rivers provided sufficient open space and fresh air. The commissioners retained the small, scattered parks that had been established in the city before 1811—including Bowling Green, the Battery, and City Hall Park—and they proposed to create larger public spaces in the northern reaches of the island where land was cheaper—Bloomingdale, Hamilton, Harlem, and Manhattan Squares, and the Harlem Marsh—spaces named for local places and residents. Closer to the built-up portion of the city, they established public areas that they felt were “indispensable” and “needful”: a military parade ground, a public market, and a location for a future reservoir, which in the meantime would be occupied by an observatory. As a solution to the irregularly shaped junction of Broadway, Bowery Road, and Fourth Avenue, they created Union Place.

The current map of Manhattan has an entirely different distribution of open spaces. Many changes occurred between the late 1820s and the early 1840s, when city officials reduced or eliminated the commissioners’ planned spaces, replacing them with smaller squares established closer to the city’s population. Ornamented and landscaped, these squares served as nuclei for new, exclusive neighborhoods and were spearheaded by a blend of public officials and private individuals.

In 1827 Mayor Philip Hone established the model with Washington Square; its perimeter was quickly built up with ornate townhouses and elite institutions. In the 1830s, developer Samuel B. Ruggles replicated the formula to increase the value of his land. He created Gramercy Park (opened 1831) on his own property to serve as the nucleus of a new wealthy neighborhood. He also lobbied the city to establish Union (opened 1833) and Madison (opened 1847) Squares, among others. The city opened Tompkins Square in 1834 on cheap land below grade level. Two years later, Peter G. Stuyvesant ceded a portion of his estate to the city, forming Stuyvesant Square, directing it to be landscaped “similar to the improvement made in Washington Square.”

By the 1850s, as New York’s population and infrastructure grew denser, the clamor for more open space in New York began to influence city and state officials. In 1853 the first Central Park law was passed, introducing a new era in the city’s distribution of public space, that of large parks rather than residential squares.

Although the commissioners had envisioned an east–west city, dependent on its rivers for both work and leisure, New York became a latitudinal city, where the circulation between uptown homes and downtown workplaces dominated. In the 1830s, Ruggles initiated the effort to facilitate north–south traffic by inserting more avenues into the Commissioners’ Plan on the rapidly developing East Side, first carving the future Lexington Avenue out of his own land between Third and Fourth Avenues, inspiring the city to establish Madison Avenue between Fourth and Fifth. In 1838 the city also began retaining sections of Bloomingdale Road, now Broadway, eventually providing direct access between the east side of Manhattan and its most northern tip.

The alterations to the Commissioners’ Plan demonstrate that although Manhattan’s grid may look rigid, it actually proved flexible. The grid provided the city with an organizing principle—orthogonality—which could absorb modifications within its rectilinear structure. Show Less