Old Streets of New York
Commissioners' PlanAt the beginning of the 19th Century the Common Council wrestled unsuccessfully with the problem of laying out new streets. Unable to resolve the conflicting demands of landowners, the city asked the state to step in. In 1807 the legislature appointed a commission of three prominent citizens, John Rutherfurd, Gouverneur Morris and Simeon De Witt. They were to "lay out streets of such extent and direction as to them shall seem most conducive to public good." The commissioners selected John Randel, Jr. as their chief surveyor.
Their jurisdiction began at an irregular line running through the present Gansevoort Street and Greenwich Avenue, Art Street, the Bowery and the present East Houston Street. The plan they issued in 1811 was essentially a river-to-river rectangular grid reaching to 155th Street. To lay out streets beyond that , they said, would encourage speculation. Only Tenth Avenue was carried to the end of the island to connect with the Kings Bridge. In that original plan, Broadway and the Bowery were allowed to continue only as far as their junction at what is now Union Square. The remainder of Broadway and the Bowery, as well as all other roads inconsistent with the grid, were to be closed.
Within the grid the Commissioners provided a few relatively small public squares, a Market Square and a large military training ground called The Parade (1). Anticipating criticism over the absence of any large park, the Commission claimed that the city would be sufficiently ventilated by its adjacent rivers.
The guiding principle of the plan was to permit the most economical subdivision of land into convenient, rectangular building lots since, as the Commission said, rectangular houses were the cheapest to build and the most convenient to live in.. The crosstown streets were 200 feet apart. This yielded blocks that could be easily divided into 25 x 100-foot building lots, a size that had already become standard.
Most crosstown streets were 60 feet wide. A few major ones were 100 feet wide, beginning with 14th Street, the first that would run uninterrupted from river to river.
There were twelve numbered avenues, each 100 feet wide, running parallel to the axis of Manhattan Island. First Avenue was the easternmost avenue that would run continuously to Harlem, uninterrupted by indentations in the shoreline. The shorter avenues to the east were assigned letters A through D. Fourth, Fifth and Sixth Avenues were on the lines of existing roads laid out in Goerck's 1796 subdivision of the Common Lands. Third Avenue was on the line of Harlem Avenue, which had been laid out afterward along the eastern edge of the Common Lands.
Many critics have deplored the monotony of the Commissioners' Plan, but others have admired the vistas afforded by its long avenues. The chief fault of the plan--and this was an issue from the beginning--was that it ignored topography. To build its ruler-straight streets, hills were cut down, valleys filled in and streams buried. Since the cost of street grading and drainage was levied on the adjacent property owners, there was opposition on both aesthetic and cost grounds.
Over the next half century there were many modifications to the original plan. It proved impractical to close Broadway and a few other old roads, and they were restored to the official map. The Parade Ground shrank and became Madison Square. The huge Market Square was eliminated but part of it became the present Tompkins Square. Madison and Lexington Avenues were inserted in the overlong blocks between Third and Fifth Avenues. Central Park was established and some of the other original squares were eliminated. In the 1860s and '70s the city bowed to the realities of topography and laid out curving streets and additional parks on Manhattan's steeper uptown slopes.
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© 2005 by Gilbert Tauber