NYC Streets

Common Lands

Under its British colonial charters, the City of New York had a legal status much closer to that of a private corporation than to a present-day municipality. (The city government was routinely referred to as "the Corporation" well into the 20th Century.) The early charters endowed the corporation with the ownership of all vacant and unclaimed land on Manhattan Island. Part of this endowment consisted of underwater lands around the margins of the island. (See Wharves, Piers and Slips) The balance was an irregular swath running up the middle of the island from about 23rd Street to the vicinity of the present Central Park Reservoir, where it met the boundary line of the Town of Harlem. It is this upland strip, which in places was more than a half-mile wide, that is usually meant by the term Common Lands.

Through the 18th and early 19th centuries, the city's general practice was to rent parcels of the Common Lands to farmers and others on long-term leases. But numerous parcels were conveyed outright to private buyers or, at nominal cost, to religious and charitable institutions. After the Revolution the city came under increasing pressure to sell its Common Lands, both to accommodate the city's growth and to raise money for public improvements. In 1785 and 1796 the Common Lands, then totaling nearly two square miles, were divided into lots in two surveys by Casimir Goerck. The roads laid out on these surveys determined the lines of the present Park, Fifth and Sixth Avenues. The Common Lands were nearly all sold off by the mid-19th century. A good chunk of them had to be bought back to create Central Park. See also Harlem.

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