Postcards from a big planet: order and more order in New York City

“It’s just like a big giant chessboard”, I said, when asked about first impressions of New York City. Directions were given simply – get to this intersection, then head two blocks west and three blocks north. The clarity of how Manhattan is organised seemed nothing short of astounding, and my elaborate sense of urban direction suddenly rendered redundant.

It wasn’t the replacement of street names with numbers that was disconcerting, but the uniform regularity of it all, with each block virtually identical, thus providing an instant sense of distance and location. 110th Street? You know immediately that that’s far from 14th Street. Equally disorienting were the clear views down each street, traffic light colours gently blinking away – but the symmetry of the towering skyscrapers receding into…nothing. No Arc de Triomphe or St. Peter’s Basilica marks their end, instead seeming like a technical lesson in perspective drawing out of an art class where the lines recede into infinity.

Looking South down Fifth Avenue

The explanation came by chance in the terrific The Works: Anatomy of a City, explaining how the city’s infrastructure functions and its design: in 1811, two hundred years ago, city commissioners approved a masterplan for Manhattan’s future development, the city up until that point confined to what is now lower Manhattan, with the result being the same grid layout that bewilders me today. From the commissioners’ report:

“That one of the first objects which claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive….

“…To the better understanding of the map, it will be proper to recollect, in examining it, that the term avenue is applied to all those streets which run in a northerly direction parallel to each other. These are one hundred feet wide, and such of them as can be extended as far north as the village of Harlem are numbered (beginning with the most eastern, which passes from the west of Bellevue Hospital to the east of Harlem Church) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12.”

As a NY Times piece earlier this year on the plan’s anniversary noted, its legacy is notable as much for the grand vision itself, as it is for the fact that it has persisted over the city’s rapid development in the past two centuries:

“What I found absolutely remarkable,” said Hilary Ballon, an urban studies professor at New York University and curator of a future exhibition on the grid for the Museum of the City of New York, “was how the city had a commitment to executing this vision, which required a pretty significant transformation in how the city worked — a greater degree of governmental authority, changes in the taxation system to fund this road building, and a multigenerational commitment to its implementation.”

The Manhattan Street Plan of 1811

In the clear lines of Manhattan’s streets is the result of a particular vision of what social life should look like: orderly and organised, rational and rigorous. It is perhaps the city planner’s dream – as anthropologist James C. Scott richly illustrates in Seeing Like a State, governments elites across space and time have sought to streamline and rationalize diverse ways of living into a narrower set of possibilities, ones that can be monitored, and ultimately controlled by state authorities. (It is an urge for neatness and straight lines that anyone who has played SimCity well knows – suddenly, the real-life model for the game’s recommended 6×6 grid in which to zone land and bound by streets appears before my eyes).

Such efforts – whether in urban planning, the consolidation of a common language, agricultural schemes, and so on, as Scott discusses – are efforts at legibility, trying to turn a great mass of people and livelihoods into something comprehendable by governing authorities. There is nothing ‘natural’ about Manhattan’s grid layout, which instead treats the island as a blank sheet of paper, largely ignoring topography, exisiting communities and ultimately, seeking to construct a new social reality without much regard for whatever might have been there before. Against the uniform city blocks, Broadway’s diagonal path across the island seems almost aesthetically violent. For in the straight, uncompromising lines of urban grid layouts lies a confidence in top-down social engineering: a better life lies in a strict adherence to a Plan, designed by experts to be economically efficient, spatially functional and in such a utilitarian achievement, constituting a marker of human rationality and ‘progress’.

A recent story in the Times illustrates in a different way, the quest of governing authorities to count and monitor all that goes on – because if you can count it, you can change it. For Michael Bloomberg, New York City’s mayor, progress is measured by change in some 478 indicators, all of which presumably have their own plan or strategy intended to drive improvement in the numbers.

“And since becoming mayor nearly a decade ago, he has minutely quantified virtually every detail of his government, from the number of mentally ill inmates in city jails to the days left in his current term. A video screen at City Hall regularly updates the progress of dozens of agencies in meeting their goals.

Scott’s book is a litany of the many failures of such plans and attempts at social engineering and creating Utopia here on Earth (the subtitle is How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed). So perhaps the surprising thing about the Manhattan urban grid is that is seems to work (I’ve been here two weeks; maybe actual residents will think differently). But if the linear city structure of Manhattan represents a successful imposition of order onto an urban population, the persistence of this plan contrasts with another high-profile attempt at urban grand designs somewhere else in the world – part II follows, sometime next week.

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2 thoughts on “Postcards from a big planet: order and more order in New York City

  1. Gareth Price says:

    Interesting piece Nick. I was there last year, and I found the grid structure very liberating – and it encouraged me to walk more than I would have done in a comparable mega-city. Because you think – oh, it’s just 10 blocks, I can walk that.
    My instinct is that it’s a soul-less concept, but my experience is that it’s effective – particularly for a city with such a history of welcoming newcomers.

  2. Hello Nick. Brilliant text, extremely well written and quoted, even though I do not agree with your assumptions.The Urban layout of Manhattan really encourages me to keep fit and walk blocks and blocks in one single day. It is also easier to find yourself as a tourist, and helps if you have children for example. (they can easily get lost at this ocean of people). Hence, with this urban layout they could find themselves easily, repelling what could happen at its worst instances. Also, it is very interesting to take on consideration that it avoids even worst traffic.
    – Once, the Hotel Receptionist told me it was also thought as being a good escape route from the Island, if something terrible happened, as it did in 9/11 and people managed to evacuate incredibly fast from Lower Manhattan.

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