Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.
Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.
But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?
There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.
But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.
In December 1797, the Franco-Prussian duo Joseph Mangin (later architect of New York’s City Hall) and Casimir Goerck contracted with the city to “survey and plan all its streets”. They must have had little communication with their employer after that, since, while the map the two produced was complete by 1799, it was only in 1803 that the city minutes recorded that their “Map of the City lately printed…contains many inaccuracies and designated streets which have not been agreed to by the Corporation [meaning the city] and which it should be improper to adopt, and which might tend to lead the proprietors of the Land adjacent to such streets so laid into error.”
The city council immediately voted to revoke the surveyors’ contract. It even asked the city’s official Street Commissioner paste to their map a label affirming that “none of the [new] streets…have been approved or open under [the city's] authority”. Curiously, though, another version of the plan appeared in 1807, rendered in color by engraver William Bridges. The engraver added some flourishes — including a number of leafy residential squares — but otherwise left the Mangin-Goerck Plan more or less intact.
What was Mangin and Goerck’s vision for Manhattan, exactly? Their maps make it hard to tell. But many of the new streets they would have scratched onto the island’s then-wild surface were already being planned by landowners. In a way, then, their plan was more like a codification of the way the city would have developed by organic subdivision than an equally grandiose alternative to the uncompromisingly Cartesian rigidity of the Commissioners’ Plan.
Mangin and Goerck extended the incipient street plan covering the old Bayard West Farm Grid beyond present-day 14th Street— which, today, marks the absolute northern limit of streets that don’t conform with the Commissioners’ grid. They also wiped out these streets’ early adoption of numbers, rather than names (preferring titles — Art, Science, and Amity — more conceptual than pragmatic).
The streets laid out on the old De Lancey estate — once conceived as an upscale residential district but, after their Loyalist developers had fled the Revolution, beginning to take on the far less affected characteristics of the Lower East Side — pressed north to take up half of what’s the East Village today. The rest of that neighborhood seems to have been planned in the exact same style as the descendants of Petrus Stuyvesant — New York’s last Dutch governor and former owner of the property — intended.
On the west side, Mangin and Goerck’s plan seems to contemplate continuing Greenwich Village’s haphazard tangle of streets — which is to say there was not much of a plan at all. In fact, although, unlike the Commissioners’ Plan, Mangin and Goerck’s maps don’t depict the entire island, it’s fair to guess that the street plans of many of the old villages that once dotted rural Manhattan — Kip’s Bay, Glass House Farm, Manhattanville — may have been preserved. Today’s Midtown might consist of power addresses not on Fifth or Park Avenues, but on old Dutch lanes with names like Rapilje and Schroepel.
In short, a Mangin-Goerck Manhattan might have not been a very orderly place — but it might, the loss of Manhattanhenge notwithstanding, have been a more interesting one. Much has been made of the “democratic” nature of the Commissioners’ grid, which eliminated sightlines dominated by government buildings — a common planning practice at the time, and one which emphasized institutional hierarchies. But the grid has also been chastised for its monotony (by no less a celebrant of democracy than Tocqueville) and critiqued for its convenience to business interests: right angles proved the most efficient means to divvy up real estate. Randel’s warning that extending the grid beyond 155th Street would kick off a wave of “pernicious speculation” was a little more than a mischievous wink at the boom his existing, wildly ambitious idea would help spark.
Still, even the mathematically unyielding Commissioners’ Plan was eventually forced to make geographic, economic, and legal concessions to Manhattan’s preexisting order. The public spaces it did leave open — a giant marketplace that would have spanned the length of the East Village, a vast “parade” for drilling troops — were chopped down to minuscule equivalents, and form today’s Madison and Tompkins Squares. The winding old Bloomingdale Road was left in place, as an extension of Broadway. So were bits and pieces of older street plans, like the East Village’s Stuyvesant Street. It cuts what seems like a curious diagonal today, but would have been part of a larger grid had the Mangin-Goerck Plan taken hold.
Despite the censure they received from the city council, Mangin and Goerck were eventually honored for their efforts — their names were given to two of the city streets they’d surveyed. For over a century, Goerck and Mangin Streets ran through a Lower East Side oblivious of the roles its namesakes nearly played in shaping the city. In 1939, however, Goerck Street was renamed for Simon Baruch, a Confederate surgeon turned advocate of public baths. Not long after that, the street largely disappeared in a wave of redevelopment that supplanted much of Manhattan’s street plan — grid and non — with superblocks and tunnel approaches. Baruch Place gave way to the Bernard Baruch Houses — named for Simon’s financier son. Mangin Street survives to this day — though it’s a stub of its former self, adrift in the ocean of public housing projects near FDR Drive.
Similar reconfigurations have, in the course of time, taken place all over Manhattan. The Commissioners’ grid endures. But all things tend toward entropy: the more the city accommodates necessary or desired changes, the more it actually resembles Mangin-Goerck’s more chaotic, more haphazard New York.
Tags: Cartography, Manhattan, New York, Street Names, Then and Now, Urban Design