Monday, January 23, 2012

Grid love: NYC's brutal 1811 plan survives, adapts

Drawing from New York's earliest years shows now-leveled hills
NEW YORK  It brutally assaulted the land's natural features. It rejected contemporary ideals of strong city planning in favor of helping business and real estate interests. Its disrespect for existing property lines and uses would be reviled today as government overreach.

In 1811, a three-man commission created and imposed a relentless street grid onto almost all of Manhattan's then-undeveloped land. The grid ignored hills, ponds, creeks and swamps. With only a few exceptions it mandated that all of the island generally north of Houston Street would hold rectangular blocks – no curving streets, quirky intersections or irregularities to ease the eye. It offered only a few spots for parks or squares, and those generally weren't built as planned anyway.

But viewed from 200 years later, the famous New York City street grid turns out to have been stunningly resilient, in contrast to the faddish and already failing cul-de-sacs and freeways of the past 60 years. It has accommodated dramatic changes in transportation habits. By creating short blocks and multiple street corners it boosted commerce. By making it easy for people to walk places, and to bump into each other at those same corners, it enhanced the proximity effect  the way random encounters among smart people in a city can spark partnerships, innovations, creativity and build new businesses. That, too, boosted New York's growing role as the country's top business hub.

With numbered avenues and streets logically marching northward and westward, the easy-to-navigate map also helped the city welcome and assimilate newcomers: foreign and domestic immigrants as well as millions of tourists. Its ease of use projected a subliminal welcome mat. Contrast that with the you're-not-wanted-here feeling that Charlotte's confusing maze of Myers Park streets projects to outsiders.

I spent a large chunk of Saturday afternoon at the new exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York: “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan,1811-2011.” It might sound boring. It was anything but.

The exhibit calls the plan "a vision of brazen ambition" and one that "required vigilant enforcement." The grid was not hailed as brilliant planning, in an era that saw more sophisticated plans for the District of Columbia, Paris and Savannah. And one of the interesting insights I gained was the recognition that, if I'd been writing in 1811, I would probably have criticized the plan for its disdain of natural features, its disregard for existing farmland and its general lack of elegance, in favor of enhancing commerce. But as the New York Times' Michael Kimmelman writes, "It’s true that Manhattan lacks the elegant squares, axial boulevards and civic monuments around which other cities designed their public spaces. But it has evolved a public realm of streets and sidewalks that creates urban theater on the grandest level. No two blocks are ever precisely the same because the grid indulges variety, building to building, street to street."

If you can take it in before the exhibit closes April 15, I recommend it.

And if you're from Charlotte, it's worth thinking for a minute what this city would be like if its development, like New York's, had taken place under the guidance of a plan that assumed  admittedly with arrogance and grandiosity that a small village was destined for big growth and would need city streets, city blocks and city corners, multiple route choices for traffic (whether horse and buggy or Hummers) and a layout to make walking as convenient as driving.

It's too late for Charlotte. Retrofitting will be necessary over time, but that's hugely expensive, contentious and politically fraught. Notice what happens when the city tries to connect streets between neighborhoods. People go nuts at the prospect that city streets near them will carry traffic. In the largest city between Washington and Atlanta, they are shocked at the thought of traffic. Go figure.

Better to have done it differently from the get-go.