The Museum of the City of New York’s latest exhibition celebrates Manhattan’s historic transformation from farmland into the highly organized street system it is today. “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” takes visitors on the journey from the former rocky terrain to our current city streets. Through extensive historical maps, photographs, and paintings, the story of how Manhattan came to be comes alive before your eyes.
The structure of our easily navigable numbered streets and avenues was born in 1811 through the “Commissioners’ Plan.” The design reorganized the rural valleys, streams, and farms into the present-day Houston Street through 155th Street. Visitors begin with lush paintings of farm life, gorgeous estates, and almost unrecognizable maps of wooded areas, ponds, and meadows that are now bogged with skyscrapers. The lay of the land in 1811 was beautifully captured by surveyor and cartographer John Randel Jr., who created the colorful Randel Farm Map series, ten of which are on display in The Greatest Grid.
Maps of Manhattan over the years show the transformation from sprawling farms to private estates, and further to row homes and shared properties. Many hold original land owners’ names inscribed on the lots, in which many have made their way to becoming the names of alleys, streets, and small parks we recognize today.
The creation of the grid was a more arduous undertaking than one might think — a total reconstruction of the land. The Greatest Grid illustrates this undertaking with historic photos that document the blasting of Manhattan rock, leaving some homes that were on even land to being perched on high cliffs.
Through this extensive exhibition, New Yorkers will come away understanding just how the Manhattan we navigate each day came to be, while glimpsing the rural land that used to be under our feet.
Lead image: Egbert L. Viele, View of Second Avenue looking up from 42nd Street, 1861 (Museum of the City of New York)