The Greatest Grid


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

Surveying the City

Transferring the straight lines of the 1811 plan from paper to terrain was a demanding process. It did not require unusual technical skills; measuring straight lines across a limited distance was basic to the surveyor’s art. But the social context, human interference, and need for legally binding precision complicated the grid surveys.

This effort was led by John Randel, Jr. over a period of 14 years, from 1807, when the commissioners appointed him as their secretary and surveyor, to 1820, when he completed a detailed atlas of the island. Read More Randel’s first wave of surveying informed the 1811 plan: his work is reflected in the elevation notations, the varying distances between the avenues, the unvarying 200-foot width of the blocks, and the hierarchy of street widths. In the next phase of work for the Common Council, Randel meticulously resurveyed the island, placing stone monuments at the location of future streets and recording the properties and natural features that the grid would have to reorganize.

His careful measuring was conducted amid protests and litigation. Randel’s surveyors were regularly obstructed, attacked, and sued for damages for cutting branches to complete their work. Randel himself was often arrested for trespassing. But in short order, the streets he surveyed became sought-after improvements. Looking back at his survey work 20 years later, Randel commented: “The persons who instituted those suits were a few of the numerous opponents of the field operations of the Commissioner, which included their property in the then new Plan for the city, many of whose descendants have been made rich thereby.” Show Less