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204 Years Ago Friday: Commissioners' Plan Develops Manhattan Street Grid As We Know It

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- Friday marked the 204th anniversary of the iconic city plan that developed the Manhattan street grid as we know it.

The Commissioners' Plan of 1811 was developed for the orderly sale of land in Manhattan between 14th Street on the south and 155th Street on the north. It was once known as "the single most important document in New York City's development," according to the Museum of the City of New York.

The population of Manhattan had tripled between 1790 and 1810, and public health issues had become serious, according to the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Protection. The organized street plan was demanded for the city's future needs as it grew, as at the time, the island as a whole was largely rural and dominated by country estates, according to the society.

The plan did not make changes to the streets in Greenwich Village or Lower Manhattan, since the majority of the city's population resided south of Houston Street – then known as North Street, according to the society.

But from 14th Street on north – and south to Houston Street in what is now the East Village – the plan created a network of streets that met at 90-degree angles. They included 11 broad avenues that we think of as north-south, but actually run approximately parallel to the Hudson River, and 155 perpendicular east-west or crosstown streets, the New York Times recalled.

The avenues were numbered starting with First Avenue on the east and continuing through Twelfth Avenue on the west. Four more streets using the letters A through D were included where the island widened east of First Avenue.

All the streets have retained their names or numbers, for the most part, with the exception of Fourth Avenue – which is now known as Park Avenue except for a small stub that actually runs off-grid between Union Square and Cooper Square. Madison and Lexington avenues were added later, and Broadway – which already existed at the time of the plan – was left alone.

Certain existing off-grid streets were also left untouched by the plan. Among them is Stuyvesant Street in the East Village – honoring the last New Netherland director-general Peter Stuyvesant – which veers diagonally from 10th Street to Third Avenue just south of 9th Street. Stuyvesant Street is now the only street that runs true east-west in Manhattan, the society said.

Distance between the new avenues varied, but the majority of east-west streets were rigidly laid out to be 60 feet wide with 200 feet between each one. A handful of streets – 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 106th, 116th, 125th, 135th, 145th, and 155th – were arranged to be broader at 100 feet wide.

The grid plan was ultimately extended northward through the rest of Manhattan and parts of the Bronx.

For all its orderly organization, the plan did not meet with universal praise. Some were not pleased that it cleared away the city's natural rock and soil to make for a flat and orderly landscape, and plowed right through existing landowners' property.

"'Twas the Night before Christmas" author Clement Clarke Moore was among those who complained that the plan failed to protect the natural environment of the island -- and it also affected the parceling of his own property in Chelsea, the society recalled.

Moore is quoted as dismissing the commissioners behind the plan as "men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome."

Baron Alexis de Tocqueville also slammed the plan, saying it brought about "relentless monotony," the New York Times recalled.

The chief engineer and surveyor for the plan, John Randel Jr., was not such a popular figure either. As he surveyed for the plan, he was quoted in prepared remarks at the time that the "was arrested by the Sheriff, on numerous suits instituted...for trespass and damage by...workmen, in passing over grounds, cutting off branches of trees, etc., to make surveys under instructions from the Commissioners."

Angry landowners also threw artichokes and cabbages Randel and his colleagues for daring to plan streets that would plow through their properties, the New York Times reported.

The plan has also been criticized for clearing away many of the city's earliest buildings. One historical report says about 721 buildings had to be torn down or moved to make way for the new street grid, the society recalled.

But the plan was adopted, and the construction was done by the end of the 19th century, the preservation society recalled.

The society notes that the effects of the 1811 plan on the development of Manhattan can best be seen at Peretz Square in the East Village. Bounded by First Avenue, 1st Street and Houston Street, the square marks the point where the off-grid streets that were left alone on the Lower East Side meet the angular streets developed for the plan.

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