Union Square, looking south, 1849, published by John Bachmann. Click on the slide show button to view additional images.

Manhattan’s defining street grid turned 200 earlier this year, and the Museum of the City of New York is marking the occasion with “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” the first comprehensive exhibition dedicated to the grid’s planning and implementation. Though ostensibly a celebration of New York, the show is more importantly a celebration of long-range urban planning.

The grid has been at once lauded as an expression of democratic equality—because no block is sited more prominently than another—and maligned for promoting efficiency above aesthetic values or the landscape. It enabled Manhattan to become the first plug-in city, absorbing wave after wave of urban design innovations: picturesque Central Park, City Beautiful monuments like Grand Central, thrusting skyscrapers, and Corbusian superblocks. The exhibition, which runs through April 15, illustrates these adaptations with dozens of historic photographs that show the gradual filling-in of the urban landscape; it also includes the original maps, surveyors’ instruments, and a variety of historic documents.

Manhattan’s grid dates to 1807, when, anticipating the nascent metropolis’ future growth, the New York state legislature appointed three commissioners—Gouvernour Morris, Simeon DeWitt, and John Rutherfurd—to lay out every street and avenue from present-day Houston Street to 155th. The commissioners and their team, led by chief surveyor John Randel, Jr., explicitly rejected the axial boulevards of cities like Paris or Washington, D.C., instead choosing an orthogonal grid for its efficiency. “Strait-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in,” they remarked at the time.  

They didn’t invent the plan out of thin air. Many similar grids had already emerged throughout the young country: Philadelphia’s perpendicular streets date to 1682; those of Savannah, Georgia, to 1733; Albany, New York, 1794. In 1785, the Continental Congress divvied up the territory that would become Ohio into a checkerboard of square-mile lots, which were sold to repay Revolutionary War debt. Long before, orthogonal street patterns even appeared in Roman military encampments in Europe and the Middle East, and in Spanish settlements in the New World. An imposition of rational form on an unpredictable landscape, the grid is uniquely suited to colonization.

On March 22, 1811, the New York commissioners issued three copies of their final scheme, rendered in ink on paper, nine feet in length. All three survive today; one is presented in the exhibition. Also on view are 10 of the 92 rarely displayed “Randel Farm Maps,” drawn by Randel between 1818 and 1820 for the city’s Common Council, showing the proposed grid superimposed over every existing building and property line.

As the surveyors traipsed across the island and the new avenues began creeping northward, many landowners fiercely resisted the city’s efforts to break up their land, until they realized how lucrative the streets made their property. By showing how once-controversial investments in the civic realm increased the value of private property, the exhibition carries a strong political subtext: public good not only trumps private profit; it makes that profit possible.

But a street grid is insufficient to guarantee a city’s success. Philadelphia was quickly surpassed by its neighbor to the north, and New York itself would never have thrived without its harbor or its proximity to the Erie Canal. And what about Phoenix? Its automobile-scaled grid not only enabled it to become ground zero for the housing crisis, but also created a precarious balancing act with the surrounding desert ecology. The grid is a good start, but it will take more than an efficient plan to ensure our cities can meet the environmental and economic challenges of the 21st century.