The Greatest Grid
Cities, and especially New York, are different from the rest of the occupied planet. Instead of being trapped in vehicles, we dance around the city in commonly owned spaces; subways, buses, elevators, and, most significantly, streets. These public ways are not just paved strips through the landscape but sequences of urban rooms, or at least urban hallways.
But this grid of halls through the city was planned long before it was mission-critical to rationalize urban circulation. And its initial effect was more as a transition from large property ownership to the granular lots that define most of New York. The grid created the widest possible base of individual investment in real estate at the same time it defined the movement patterns for the future. Ever since the 1811 grid was imposed on a mostly empty Manhattan, the city framework has evolved from bricolage to system.
The relationship of buildings to cities is not unlike trees to a forest: though the city is defined by its buildings, no single one is indispensable. The destruction of monuments like the original Penn Station, Madison Square Garden (the original one, on Madison Square), and, of course, the World Trade Center prove that New York can persevere in spite of the extraordinary variability of building heritage, quality, size and purpose. Buildings define these public rooms, not the other way around, and they do it most effectively when, on the whole, they maintain the urban tradition of the street wall. Streets and urban spaces are what make this town and the balance between conformance and individualism is a delicate one. Too much conformance would produce an almost Soviet tedium, while too little would create a World’s Fair. The city grid allows the widest possible individual variation, but only while conforming to the generally accepted rules of engagement. Just as on the dance floor we can accept quite a bit of individual expression as long as we all move to the same beat.
While the original grain of the grid, oriented to the rivers, was intended to reflect public access to the waterfront as the main source of recreation, the inflection also allowed the reverse; the saturation of the city with water-borne goods and labor. The long rectangular blocks of the grid allowed piers at the Hudson and East Rivers to follow the narrow street rhythm, while the wider avenues were collectors, condensing the flow of traffic, people, and goods from the water, through the city, and northward off the island to the mainland. Despite intentions, the most coveted locations in the city were still as far from the water as possible (5th Avenue) because the waterfront was in reality less recreational than gritty, industrial and dangerous. Avenues were not just collectors for goods, but for the upper classes as well.
The grid organized real estate while it set unique cardinal points; New York north vs. geographic or magnetic north. It is our axis mundi, our decumanis and cardo maximi and becomes, in that sense, our entire world. With our own urban compass, the sunrise and sunset, day and night, up and down(town) as well as the seasons become distinctly New York.
Even time is metered by the grid; the grid is, in a very real sense, the metronome of the city. If movement is the physical manifestation of time, then the grid is our urban clock. All New Yorkers know how long it takes to walk ten blocks north (ten minutes) and two blocks east (eight). Seasoned residents will round down to 15 minutes to assure that they are a tad late; a newcomer will round up.
We live by the grid even if we do so unconsciously. The furniture in our apartment aligns with the grid. The tiles in our bathrooms do. When we set our table the napkins are true to the grid. Diagonal parking just looks wrong in New York…it’s a sacrilege. I work in the financial district and still don’t completely understand the non-linear streets, which made the recent Sol Lewitt exhibit in City Hall Park especially reassuring.
When flying over America it is hard to escape the grid. Jefferson, in a similarly prescient attempt to control the landscape, ordered nature with his square one mile grid. If Hamilton had decreed the grid it might have favored east-west movement just as ours does, but the agrarian Jefferson was more even handed.
We accept the idea of the grid as naturally as we accept the idea of private ownership. While hardly an American invention (Greeks and Romans did a pretty good job of establishing the Cartesian as the mark of man taming nature) it fits our character in a way it does few others. We love its democracy and it efficiency as much as we love its ability to make any new place instantly navigable. As a nation of immigrants we believe in its legibility and its offer of social mobility.
New York is still a machine for moving commerce, but not the kind it was designed for. New York was the largest manufacturing center in America when Manhattan’s grid was conceived. It moved materials efficiently from the port to factories and sent finished goods to the world. The genius of the urban grid is that this system still works perfectly, repurposed as the system of movement for our ideas. Our media, art, finance, design, technology, philanthropy, and health care use the system of streets to make New York the most mobile place on earth. We no longer make many tangible goods, but the streets are still our metronome and dance hall.
A young colleague from Germany, arriving at the office ahead of me, asked if I had stopped off along the way (I hadn’t). She was right behind me on the subway stairs but took her own preferred path through the grid. Convinced that she had found the shortest possible walk to the office she was triumphant! I didn’t have the heart to tell her what was obvious to every New Yorker…the grid is the great equalizer; she simply walked faster than I did.