Book review: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” edited by Hilary Ballon

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Book review: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” edited by Hilary Ballon

Two hundred and one years ago, when New York comprised the small southern tip of Manhattan Island, three commissioners laid out the future of the city as a grid.

It was an act of chutzpah.

This paper-drawn framework of rectangular blocks and right-angled streets was to be superimposed on a site far from inviting for such an effort — a rugged, undulating landscape, covered by streams, beaches, wetland and hills. Indeed, the Indian word “mannahata” means “island of many hills.”

Rather than adapt the coming city to those gritty realities, the planners called for a century-long effort to level the heights and fill in the depressions.

Other cities, such as Paris and Washington, had employed diagonal streets and the folds in topography to create the sort of public space in which an important or ornate building could be highlighted, like a diamond in the setting of a ring.

In contrast, the commissioners appointed to make the city plan wanted straight streets and right angles to make it easier to buy and sell property and encourage business and residential development. A grid produced uniformly rectangular lots — some larger, some smaller, but all easy to describe on paper and on the spot. In other words, land as a commodity.

This is the subject of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” published in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York. The book was edited by architecture historian Hilary Ballon who also curated the exhibit which will end its seven-month run in mid-July.

Creating New York

For anyone who loves cities, this is a delightful book. And for anyone who is interested in the way the world works.

New York City didn’t just happen. It was created. It is the result of uncountable decisions made by uncountable people, and the endeavor to develop the island as a grid was one of the most important of those choices.

Is it “the greatest grid”?

That, I’m afraid, is an example of New York’s over-inflated sense of itself. An argument could be made — and I will do so in a book I am now writing — that the grid that became Chicago was equally important in its own way.

To talk of the “greatest” grid is like trying to come up with the greatest actor, or greatest baseball player, or greatest battle. It comes down to apples and oranges.

Why not just call the book and exhibit “The Great Grid”? It would still make the point without denigrating every other grid. I guess the museum officials and the book publisher felt that “greatest” would draw more visitors and sell more books than simply “great.” Alas.

The center of Manhattan?

That quibble aside, this book is filled with fascinating insights into the construction of the grid and its impact on the city and, by extension, the rest of the nation and world.

For instance, James Traub, who wrote a history of Times Square, notes in an essay that, because of the grid, New York City has no center:

If you asked a New Yorker for directions to “the center of town,” he would be bewildered, and might, for want of better, send you to Times Square, or Columbus Circle, which are simply nodal points that New Yorkers pass through….

How do we feel about living in a city without a center? I guess the right answer is “proud.” Manhattan is a remorseless place to which its citizens are particularly adapted, and of which out-of-towners are unaccountably fond….[T]he utilitarian street plan has made possible the helter-skelter, pell-mell life of the city — which is what I do love.

The spirituality of the grid

Waves of urban planners have criticized New York’s grid for being plain, pedestrian and monotonous. Their argument is that the grid doesn’t provide a way to display a dazzling high-art structure. The rectangular blocks and right-angle streets result in buildings elbow to elbow to elbow with none being able to claim the central focus.

Yet, what the critics miss is another result of the grid — the view corridors.

Ballon notes that the grid creates a double wall along each side of a street. There is a flatness to the wall, but also variations in the height of buildings and their facades.

When you stand on a Manhattan street (or, for that matter, a street in another gridded city, such as Chicago), your eye is drawn not to a government building or architect’s eye-candy or museum or bank — but to infinity.

Ballon writes:

Given the density of the city, the uninterrupted view corridor is precious and therefore highly protected.

One-point perspective is the most majestic of man-made spatial experiences. Unknown in the natural world (trees don’t grow in allees), it has logic, underlying practicality, and at the same time a strong spiritual feeling. In New York, each street is like a nave with the earth’s horizon claiming a place of reverence.

This is strong, beautiful stuff. Anyone who has looked down a city street, whether Fifth Avenue in New York or Western Avenue in Chicago, knows what Ballon is saying. You’ve felt this connection with the infinite. I know I have — even if I never quite realized it consciously until this book opened my eyes.

Breezy

This book is designed like a museum exhibit. There are 12 chapters, each dealing with a particular aspect of the grid and its history, such as the job of surveying the city, developing the West Side, rethinking the rigidity of the grid’s demands.

A short overview begins each chapter, and then a dozen or more illustrations follow, each with a short, meaty explanation of a few paragraphs. The book has 236 such maps, paintings, drawings, diagrams and photos.

Despite its rather clunky format, “The Greatest Grid” is a surprisingly breezy read (except for the chapter on surveying which goes a bit too much into the arcania of that art). That’s because it’s chockfull of really interesting facts and observations, such as:
Broadway as the grid’s only major diagonal: “The natural aspect of Broadway indulges a human need for idiosyncrasy, contingency, and unpredictability — for wildness, if not wilderness, as the historian William Cronon has put it.” (Randall Mason)
The grid as a connector: “Cities easily splinter into separate neighborhoods, small geographic areas that are places apart. Manhattan has many social divisions, but physically, the island feels remarkably connected — at least north of 14th Street. You feel that connection, in part, because you stand so often on a long avenue that runs almost the length of the island.” (Edward Glaeser)
Frederick Law Olmsted’s opposition to the grid: “A premise of the New York system was that buildings would fill out their lots and there would be high land coverage, an outcome to which Olmsted….objected. He thought the standard 25-by-200-foot lot was inadequate — too narrow and too deep — for single-family homes. He also thought the blocks were too narrow for service alleys behind the houses, as in Boston and Philadelphia, obliging the use of the street for garbage collection and other services.” (Ballon)

All in all, this is one museum exhibit book that’s not just readable but discussable. There’s much here to chew on and debate.

So much so that, at our next meeting, I’m going to recommend it to my History Book Club.

Patrick T. Reardon
6.6.12

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