Courtesy: Jleon, Wikimedia Commons
I’m surprised this hasn’t gotten more attention than it has, but Tuesday is the 200th anniversary of the Commissioner’s Plan. Many people over the centuries have derided the scheme that organized Manhattan into geometrically precise streets and avenues as soulless and cold. I couldn’t disagree more. It’s hard to imagine New York City becoming the de facto capital of the world without it. Until the grid most New Yorkers were clustered below Houston Street in a confused maze of streets and lanes. The Grid Plan facilitated transportation and trade, divided real estate into more easily salable parcels, and opened what were once woods and empty fields to residential and commercial development. The numbering system on the streets (1st Street, 2nd Street, etc.) was—and is—especially helpful to immigrants who otherwise could not have read the street names. The numbers tell the story. There were only 100,000 New Yorkers in 1811; a century later there were 4.4 million; today there are approximately 8.2 million souls drawn to New York’s intellectual, financial, and cultural allure.
Mayor DeWitt Clinton created the Commission in 1807 and after four years of diligent work its plan was approved on March 22, 1811. Clinton had served as a U.S. senator at the turn of the century and clearly had been inspired by Pierre L’Enfant’s layout of the nation’s new capital. If he had only done the Grid Plan, DeWitt Clinton’s place in history would have been ensured. Yet it was just the first of his important projects. Later as governor he helped build the Erie Canal, which opened in 1825 and linked New York City and State to the mid West via that Great Lake. One of the most awe inspiring things about Manhattan is looking up and seeing the avenues stretching like canyons for miles on end. It always surprises me how little one hears about DeWitt Clinton and his design for the city. I think many New Yorkers assume the city has always just been here as it is today. In a way it is oddly fitting that so few have taken the time to notice the bicentennial. As the saying goes, “If you want to see the man’s legacy, just look around you.”