These Streets Will Make You Feel Brand New (But They Are Actually 200 Years Old)

by:  Peter J. Gallagher

Happy Birthday to New York City's street grid.  The New York Times covered the anniversary in an article last week, "200th Birthday For The Map That Made New York," that discussed the history of the grid and the differing opinions about it, both when it was adopted in 1811 and today.   It is a fascinating story about something that those of us who grew up in and around New York City undoubtedly take for granted.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the ambitious scope of the project, coming as it did when New York City was still in its infancy:

"What made the grid plan, formally called the Commissioners’ Map and Survey of Manhattan Island, so farsighted was that in 1811 a vast majority of New York City’s population lived below what became Houston Street — tellingly named North Street then. When City Hall was completed that year, its rear facade was covered with cheaper brownstone (in part, legend had it, because of the notion that since most New Yorkers lived south of the building, they would see it only from the front).

Yet while largely exempting the existing village of Greenwich, the visionary commissioners imposed their 2,000-block matrix on the forests, farms, salt marshes, country estates and common lands that extended north for nearly eight miles to what would become 155th Street, and expanded the city’s plotted land area by nearly fivefold."

For me, the best part of the grid is that, even when you walk the wrong way (for instance, when you forget that even streets go east), you realize your mistake one block later and can immediately correct course and be sure that you are going in the right direction.  Not that this has ever happened to me of course.

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