The Failed Plan To Build A Mega-Manhattan

The Failed Plan To Build A Mega-Manhattan
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A Really Greater New York. That was the title of the 1911 proposal by an engineer and planner who imagined paving over massive amounts of New York Harbour to make room to build the New York of the future. Oh, you like the East River and would miss it? Too damn bad!

Yesterday Jen Carlson brought the proposal to our attention, explaining how it was drawn up — and enthusiastically promoted — by one T. Kennard Thomson in 1911. Just how much would Thomson’s plan have transformed New York? Well, as it stands today, NYC encompasses 1200 square kilometres. Thomson wanted to add a full 130 square kilometres to that by infilling huge sections of naturally water-bound New York.

In the context of early modern New York, it wasn’t all that crazy. After all, the boundaries of Manhattan had been aggressively expanded since the arrival of Dutch colonists. Ellis Island is built on landfill, as is Battery Park City. During World War II, American naval ships brought back thousands of tons of rubble from English cities that ended up in the East River, serving as infill for FDR Drive.

But all of that pales in comparison to what Thomson, a clearly ambitious city planner and engineer, had in mind.

In a 1916 Popular Science article posted on Reddit, he described the massively expensive and expansive infrastructure project. Starting at the mouth of the East River, artificial infill would great a huge swatch of new land, connecting Brooklyn to Manhattan (a new channel would be dug near Flushing to reroute water through Brooklyn). “As a result, it would not be much harder to get to Brooklyn than to cross Broadway,” he writes. “Indeed New York and Brooklyn would be as much one big city as are the East Side and West Side.”

That was far from the most dramatic part of the plan, even if it would have indelibly changed the culture of the city. Down at the southern tip of Manhattan, a long chunk of infill would create an entirely new peninsula extending off of the city — bolstered by Governor’s Island, which would simply be a piece of Manhattan now.

Across the Hudson, more new land would fill in the area around Bayonne, and a new river would connect Newark Bay to the Upper Bay. That’s where Thomson wanted to put Brooklyn’s Navy Yard — the East River, he said, was unsuitable for the task. Oh and Staten Island? It would get two massive new peninsulas, while Sandy Hook would get a new island too.

“I do not urge the simultaneous attack of the entire project,” he very wisely counseled.

Thomson’s proposal was focused on one thing: Bolstering New York’s industrial powerhouse by creating more than 100 miles of new waterfront. “Today engineers are searching for some method to cut the Gordian knot of New York’s harbour congestion problems,” he explains in his essay.

What he couldn’t foresee was that less than 50 years after his work was published, New York’s industrial boom would be dying a slow, brutal death. The city’s hundreds of existing miles of waterfront would become blighted, useless border territories, unsafe for citizens and barely used by businesses. Instead, they were covered over by multi-lane freeways that would only make things worse.

It’s taken another 50 years to begin to rehab NYC’s industrial waterfront — in part thanks to the Bloomberg-era Vision 2020 plan. But just imagine how much more industrial waterfront there would be if Thomson’s plan had been carried out, even partially. Thank god it didn’t have legs.

Here’s a great story about the plan from a few years back, if you’re looking for more information.

Pictures: Popular Science, Big Think