Today is the 200th birthday of the street map that spawned the Greatest City in the World. The New York Times has a revealing story on how the grid, which mapped 11 avenues and 155 crosstown streets, transformed New York into a city of right angles.
The urban planners had a ton of foresight! Just think about the year 1811. James Madison was president, it was before the War of 1812 and there were no cars. Yet the city planners started creating a city that would eventually accomodate millions of people, gazillion advertisements and years of traffic. How and why? The Times says:
The grid was the great leveler. By shifting millions of cubic yards of earth and rock, it carved out modest but equal flat lots (mostly 25 by 100 feet) available for purchase. And if it fostered what de Tocqueville viewed as relentless monotony, its coordinates also enabled drivers and pedestrians to figure out where they stood, physically and metaphorically.
“This is the purpose of New York’s geometry,” wrote Roland Barthes, the 20th-century French philosopher. “That each individual should be poetically the owner of the capital of the world.”
The city planners created straight and wide streets because they didn’t want crooked and narrow ones in case of fires. They also wanted New York houses to be “straight-sided and right-angled” as they were “the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in”. (As an aside: I live in New York. It might be convenient but it’s hardly cheap).
The history of the city has always interested me (thank you Scorcese) and the Times introspective is a really great read. Be sure to check out an interactive version of the original grid too. Happy 200th birthday to the map that made New York. [NY Times]