So here’s a story about my favourite little (and I mean little) quirky thing in New York, which to me is a perfect embodiment of New York’s attitude, and a direct result of New York’s street grid, which are arguably two of the city’s most well known characteristics.
To get this story started we really have to go waaaay back. Back when Lower Manhattan looked a little bit like this.
Here’s a map of the city back when it was still called New Amsterdam. You can see a few streets starting to form, including one next to the city wall (no points for guessing what that street is called these days). There’s also a canal there, but it doesn’t have any relation to today’s Canal Street (more on that later)
So, eventually New Amsterdam became New York and the city continued to expand out.
To align yourself with the map below, note the old fort bottom left, also the wall that was the former extent of the city in 1660, is now the street leading down to ‘Murrays Warf’.
You can see a few grids appearing. The wealthy Delancey family had started making their own grid, but supported the crown during the revolution and so afterwards were exiled and their land given to New York.
Many of the streets in this map still exist, although some underwent some name changes. Here’s a little gif for you to compare and contrast.
Things to look out for on this:
- The extent that the island has been expanded with landfill is actually quite impressive (and is why water street is no longer near the water)
- You can see a little pond and some marshes at the top of the map, when these were eventually drained they built a canal to get the water out, and this is where Canal street gets its name.
So, New York was continuing to grow up the island more-or-less organically. The city had been planning on laying out a grid for future development for years, and a few options had been suggested and put forward, but nothing had really stuck, here’s one that called the The Mangin–Goerck Plan that could have been.
Eventually they put together a commission, consisting of these guys below (listed in decreasing degrees of accurate portrayal). It doesn’t really matter who they are, but they had enough sway to really make this thing happen.
The next thing they did was get this hot-shot John Randel Jr. in to survey the land. He was only 20 at the time, and got busy trudging up the island surveying everything and occasionally being arrested for trespassing.
Here he is posing and deeply regretting the huge job he just took on.
Eventually they settled on a design for the street grid. It’s been suggested that it might have been a bit of a rush job, and that the practical rectangular blocks were actually a quick fix. Either way, the plan stuck and is now called “The 1811 Commissioners plan” — it looked like this.
A Few things to note: The avenues at the edges of the island were deliberately put closer together, the view being that there would be more development along the waterfront rather than in the interior as back then most trade was by water. Eventually, extra avenues would be added to the plan to cut down the size of the larger interior blocks, hence: Lexington and Madison avenue.
Also, there was initially no Central Park, and it was only a few decades later that it was added after it was decided the city was lacking in green space (but more on that later).
So, once the city decided they were going to do this, they sent Randal out again with a small team to mark out every intersection. Here’s one of Randals ‘farm maps’ where he could work out where his markers would need to be laid.
These colourful maps listed all the farms and structures and gives you a good idea of the incredible amount of work Randal did, and it’s no surprise that this task took up 11 years of his life.
I highly recommend heading over to The Greatest Grid, where they have the maps overlaid over the modern street map that you can compare and contrast with a little slider. Hours and hours fun there.
Randel’s team would mark out every intersection with a little marble post inscribed with the street numbers. Sometimes rocks made the erection of these markers impossible, so instead Randel and his team would blast a little hole in the rock, then insert a metal bolt into the rock and fuse it in with hot lead.
One of these metal bolts had to be used for the intersection of 66th st and 6th avenue. However after it was finally decided to allocate a large swathe of land to what would become Central Park, the intersection was never made, which means… you guessed it: You can still find the original bolt.
Also, it should be mentioned constructing the streets was pretty wild as well, whole hills were removed in order to get things level, and in a lot of cases, existing farm houses were left in some pretty awkward positions. Here’s the The Brennan farmhouse, at 84th and Broadway, in 1879 for instance.
Interestingly, the poet Edgar Allen Poe lived in this house in around 1840 and it was likely where he penned his famous poem ‘The Raven’. A lover of the surrounding rugged terrain, he dreaded the impending new grid, writing…
“these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, but ‘town-lots.’”
It was a long gradual process, and even as late as 1903 large boulders were still waiting to be removed, as seen here between 93rd and 94th Streets, on a Riverside Drive.
Anyway, what I really want to talk about is the points at which this new Commissioners Plan started intersecting with the older grids which were going in different directions…
As any New Yorker knows, when that happens, you start to get a lot of confusing little triangular blocks. The point at where Christopher Street, Grove Street, Washington Place, West 4th Street and 7th Avenue all crash into each other is one of those spots.
This intersection wasn’t always so complicated. Prior to 1914, 7th Avenue stopped at Greenwich Avenue, however at about this time it was decided to extend 7th Avenue down to Varick Street in order to extend the subway. The plan was to go from this…
If you have a look closely, you’ll see a building called the Voorhis gets almost completely destroyed. The owner of the building, David Hess was (as you can imagine) PRETTY ANGRY about this plan and fought tooth and nail to get it overturned.
Sadly, for David Hess and his building, he failed and within a year the tenants had been removed and the entire plot of land the building stood on was seized by the city…
…or more accurately, almost the entire plot.
You see, David Hess’s heirs, having studied the survey, later discovered that the city had missed a small corner of the property, a diminutive triangle about the size of a large pizza slice had somehow managed to fall just outside of that ruthless 7th avenue cut-through…
…and so was technically still in the possession of the Hess Family.
If you look closely, you can just see it on the map, that very little point just near the ‘S’ of ‘STATION’ sitting there left over, just beyond 54 Christopher st.
The city asked for the Hess Family to donate what was now surely the smallest plot of land in Manhattan to the city, however the Hess Family declined, and on July 27th, 1922 they installed a mosaic entirely covering their tiny bit of Manhattan real estate. The plaque read:
“Property of the Hess Estate Which Has Never Been Dedicated For Public Purposes”
A final defiant fuck-you to the city, the plaque would have surely pleased David Hess, and for a while it appropriately came to be known as ‘The Triangle of Spite’
Interestingly, with the installation of the mosaic covering the entire plot, the land was now effectively being used to inform people that the land should not be used, which I find a very neat thing indeed.
One more little bonus fact before I sign off:
The original Native American inhabitants of the island had made a trail that went from the bottom of the island to the top, it was called the Wickquasgeck Trail which means “birch-bark country” in the Algonquian language. When the Dutch arrived they started using the trail as well and it eventually became an established road.
This road wasn’t put into the 1811 commissioners plan as it wasn’t at all straight or aligned with the grid and so was to be removed, however for whatever reason, in the end it was kept and was allowed to awkwardly cut across the grid ignoring it’s rigid simplicity entirely.
We now know this street as Broadway, and if it hadn’t been retained, the triangular ‘bow-tie’ blocks it created where it crosses the grid would have never appeared. Which means, you can (in part) credit the original inhabitants of Manhattan Island for the design of the famously triangular Flatiron Building.