Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).
The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.
At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.
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