Home to some of the city’s most confusing streets, the West Village escaped the 1811 Commissioners’ Plan which set into place the logical grid found throughout the bulk of Manhattan. But how?
In the West Village, Little West 12th Street sits four blocks north of 12th Street. West 4th Street goes on a rogue north-south trajectory for more than 10 blocks, causing it to intersect with other numbered streets — an impossible feat on the grid. And just try to get your bearings at the six-pointed intersection outside the Christopher Street-Sheridan Square 1-train station. The crooked and confusing streets of westernmost Greenwich Village give the area its renowned charm, but they’ve also gotten more than a few visitors, and even native New Yorkers, turned around.
As far back as the 1600s, Manhattan’s evolving layout was well documented thanks to its earliest European settlers. The Dutch were noted cartographers, and the West India Company’s desire to track growth and revenue meant that regular censuses and surveys were the norm in the settlement’s early days. The winding and haphazard streets that evolved during this period were largely dictated by topography, existing Native American trails and animal paths, and influenced by landownership and streets meant to accommodate commercial traffic.
A 1660 map depicting the southern tip of Manhattan to Wall Street (Image: Wikimedia)
Soon, residential development and land sales spurred the need for regularly shaped plots in the growing settlement. One of the city’s first grid layouts was implemented in the 1760s when the De Lancey family divided their estate in a gridiron around a central square, creating the general layout still in use in the Lower East Side today.
In the village known as Greenwich, still far north of the city, street layouts were influenced by bodies of water that are much-changed today. Greenwich Lane (now Greenwich Street) followed the original shoreline of the Hudson River (then the North River); the blocks to the west of Greenwich Street were built on landfill. Minetta Creek, meanwhile, ran northwest through the area — along the path of Downing and Minetta streets — and influenced the direction of streets that lay north of the paved-over creek. Bends and variable block sizes were a result of existing property lines. Adding to the confusion, street names were added or changed throughout the area’s history (to connect to numbered streets to the east, in some cases) and, decades later, the addition of Sixth and Seventh avenues destroyed some small streets entirely, creating more awkward angles and irregular blocks.
1776 map depicting Greenwich Village with the Delancey grid at the lower right. (Image: Wikimedia)
By 1800, the burgeoning city government began to assert an increasing amount of control over streets, and wished to create a long-term plan for mapping Manhattan in advance of the oncoming population boom. Faced with myriad obstacles, both political and financial, the city asked the state for help. In 1807 a three-man commission was created and given authority, and a four-year deadline, to layout a street plan that was “most conducive to public good.” The plan would run from the Hudson to the East River above Houston Street, but would dodge Greenwich Village, which was considered a separate and well-established hamlet at the time.
The commissioners made good on their four-year deadline and delivered their Commissioners’ Plan for Manhattan’s layout in 1811. The Commissioner’s Plan grid included 12 avenues oriented to the main direction of the island of Manhattan (rather than to true north-south orientation), plus 155 perpendicular streets which would create rectangular blocks roughly 5 acres in size. Between 1811 to 1817, the land was surveyed and the grid inscribed into the land using marble monuments and iron bolts to create the 2,000 city blocks created by the plan. Lastly, the arduous process of acquiring the land, removing structures and laying the streets — carving out or filling in as necessary — took roughly 60 years to complete. A recent survey estimates that 39 percent, or 721, of the 1,825 structures in existence above Houston at the time had to be leveled.
The Manhattan grid is evident in aerial views.
Perhaps the most famous grid plan in the world, New York’s gridiron has been largely celebrated by modern designers and urban planners for its uniformity and symmetry, while being disparaged for its lack of imagination by its contemporaries.
Frederick Law Olmstead, co-designer of Central Park (which didn’t appear in the Commissioner’s Plan), said of the grid plan:
The time will come when New York will be built-up, when all the grading and filling will be done, when the picturesquely varied rock formations of the island will have been converted into the foundations for rows of monotonous straight streets, and piles of erect angular buildings. There will be no suggestion left of its present varied surface, with the single except of the few acres contained in [Central] Park.
In contrast, Hilary Ballon, the curator of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan 1811-2011″ exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, remarked in 2013:
It requires no insider knowledge to find an address; visitors can easily navigate, except where the city is off the grid. New York’s street system creates such transparency and accessibility that the grid serves as metaphor for the openness of New York itself!”