Hudson's Kill : Planet Money Back in the early 1800s, Manhattan was a wild, sparsely populated place, but it was just about to be developed big-time. There was a lot of money to be made knowing what would go where.
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Hudson's Kill

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Hudson's Kill

Hudson's Kill

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Paddy Hirsch.


Stacey Vanek Smith.

VANEK SMITH: You are our intrepid editor at THE INDICATOR, but you also have this secret life of crime.

HIRSCH: I do have a secret life of crime. Well, I wouldn't say I'm a criminal, but I write about crime.

VANEK SMITH: And it's a specific kind of writing about crime, right?

HIRSCH: Yes, historical fiction based in New York in the turn of the 18th century.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, Paddy, your books are always all about economics, really, because what is a better motive for murder than economics?

HIRSCH: There is no better motive.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) There's no better motive for murder.

HIRSCH: There's no better motive. Money's always the best motive, I think.

VANEK SMITH: I think so, too. And, in fact, economics is why we are here right now. And, Paddy, can you tell us where right here is?

HIRSCH: Right now, we are walking along Canal Street towards the Hudson River. So we're kind of walking northwest.

VANEK SMITH: Canal Street, home of knockoff purses, great dumpling places...

HIRSCH: The West Side Highway.

VANEK SMITH: ...The West Side Highway.

HIRSCH: Not sure when that was built, actually.


HIRSCH: Good heavens.

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) It's not a very picturesque part of New York right now.

HIRSCH: No, it's not particularly picturesque now, but it was beautiful back then because in the early 1800s, this area wasn't developed at all.

VANEK SMITH: But it was about to be. And that is where all the trouble starts.

HIRSCH: Yeah. The city was still pretty tiny still in 1800. Canal Street, which is way down near the tip of New York, was more or less the city limits back then.

VANEK SMITH: What did the city look like back then?

HIRSCH: The city was really kind of higgledy-piggledy - right? - 'cause...

VANEK SMITH: (Laughter) What does that mean - random?

HIRSCH: Random. It had grown very...

VANEK SMITH: Higgledy-piggledy's way better.

HIRSCH: Higgledy-piggledy is good, right?

VANEK SMITH: Way better.

HIRSCH: It had grown organically since the time that the Dutch occupied it at the very beginning and then handed it over to the British.

VANEK SMITH: North of Canal Street, New York was mostly farms and orchards and forests and marshes, but that was about to change. And that is where your book begins.

HIRSCH: Yes. This book is called "Hudson's Kill," and it's set in 1803, which is right about the time the city government decided that they wanted to pave over the whole of Manhattan because they saw all these people coming off boats, all these immigrants coming into the city and realized that the city just wasn't big enough to fit them, so they needed to build, build, build. And so they needed a plan.

VANEK SMITH: More specifically, they needed a map - a map that would lay out a plan for the growing city - like a map of the future.

HIRSCH: Yeah. And there was a lot of money wrapped up in this map, and a lot of speculation and rumors and contention.

VANEK SMITH: And in the case of your book, murder.

HIRSCH: Murder, yes.


HIRSCH: And I'm Paddy Hirsch.

VANEK SMITH: And today on the show, your life of crime.

HIRSCH: My life of crime and how New York real estate got started, yeah.

VANEK SMITH: The map that changed everything.


HIRSCH: So we're going back in time right now to 1800, old New York, the setting of my novel "Hudson's Kill." At this time, most of Manhattan is this undeveloped, laky, marshy landscape - some farms and orchards, lots of hills.

VANEK SMITH: And the hills were alive. Manhattan, apparently, had this incredible biodiversity back then - black bears, gray wolves, snapping turtles, giant beavers, hoary bats.

HIRSCH: Hoary bats.

VANEK SMITH: Hoary bats. Manhattan - how many people are living in Manhattan right now?

HIRSCH: At this point, about 60,000.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, it's tiny.

HIRSCH: Yeah, it's very small. And by the way, so right around the turn of the century, it's around 60,000. By the mid-1860s, it's a million. So you think about how fast the city was growing at that point. It would double in size every 10 to 15 years.

VANEK SMITH: Wow. So how does real estate development in Manhattan start? Like, who has this vision?

HIRSCH: A commission which was supposed to be like a planning commission in 1807.

VANEK SMITH: The planning commission - this consisted of a handful of guys, including Simeon De Witt, who had drawn battle maps for George Washington.

HIRSCH: And Gouverneur Morris, one of the more colorful founding fathers. He had a peg leg and a reputation as a ladies' man. He was on something called the Committee of Style at the Constitutional Convention.


VANEK SMITH: Yeah, apparently they wanted to make sure that the writing in the Constitution was sort of stylish and had, like, some flair.

HIRSCH: Look; if you're going to make a constitution, you make a stylish constitution.

VANEK SMITH: You make a stylish constitution. And this little group set to work planning a city over this wild, hilly island.

HIRSCH: It was kept secret for a bunch of years.

VANEK SMITH: Why secret?

HIRSCH: Well, because they didn't want to encourage too much speculation. So they decided to develop the plan in secret, which, of course, lead to an orgy of speculation.

VANEK SMITH: Well, what value would there be in a map of Manhattan?

HIRSCH: Well, because developers wanted to know where the main roads were going because back then, that was the most valuable land. You didn't know where the priciest real estate was going to be in terms of who wanted to live where, right? You know, is it going to be a waterfront? Is it going to be the hillside? You know, you had no idea. But the main roads were a sure thing because that's where you wanted to have the taverns and the stores and all the rest of it. So these developers really wanted to know where the roads were going to go so they could work out which plots of land were going to be the choicest.

VANEK SMITH: Oh, so this drawing of a map was basically going to dictate a lot of the value of the properties.

HIRSCH: Exactly.

VANEK SMITH: Not to mention the future of the city - trying to look forward hundreds of years to see what New York could become, what they wanted it to become.

HIRSCH: So the surveyors start traipsing around all of these rolling hills of Manhattan, through people's farms and orchards with their compasses and notepads and those little rolly things on the end of a stick and axes for clearing brush, poking around the farms and the forests, basically planning the city.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. And this did not always go very well because the landowners and the tenant farmers and the squatters are starting to realize that the government of New York is planning a city on top of them.

HIRSCH: Yeah, like drawing Fifth Avenue through their living room and trespassing to do it. There are reports of landowners throwing cabbage at the surveyors.

VANEK SMITH: And, of course, while the mappers are mapping, rumors are flying. Money's changing hands. In fact, Paddy, in your novel, someone gets murdered because of all the money and speculation around this map.

HIRSCH: Yes, I was imagining what might motivate someone to kill, and all of that real estate speculation and who owns what land.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, there's a lot of money at stake.

HIRSCH: Well, people were buying blocks of land for next to nothing because, you know, some people thought it was worthless, then trying to sell it for more, spreading rumors about where the roads were going to go. People would freak out and try to buy this land. The price would rocket. Then there would be another rumor saying, oh, no, the main road's going over here. The price would fall again. And so people - a lot of people lost a lot of shirts.

And, in fact, there was a - it was a minor panic in the stock market triggered by property speculation in 1810 that people worried was going to turn into, like, a real panic that could crash the economy.

VANEK SMITH: And then, finally, in March of 1811, the map comes out. It's made public. It laid the whole city out in detail, the whole island of Manhattan - all of the rolling hills and the cow pastures and the apple orchards, from Battery Park all the way up to 155th Street. And it was...

HIRSCH: A grid - a giant grid. Now, New York as a grid seems not that surprising today. But at the time, this was pretty radical.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Cities weren't really built on grids at that time. This was a pretty new idea.

HIRSCH: Gets released to the public, and people hate it.

VANEK SMITH: They hate it for a bunch of reasons. For one thing, it is a government land grab on a massive scale. A lot of the farmers and landowners look at this map, and they're like, hey, wait a minute; this map goes through my farm. And, you know, many of these guys actually did OK. They got paid out for their land. And some of the big landowners, like the Kips and the Stuyvesants, made a lot of money on this map.

HIRSCH: For tenant farmers and squatters, though, this was a lose-lose. They realized they were going to lose their jobs and their homes and get moved off of their land. They were left with nothing.

VANEK SMITH: And other people just thought the grid was ugly.

HIRSCH: A lot of people looked at the way Paris was developed, you know, in this - with these sort of wonderful circles. And they hated the fact that New York had been developed on a grid. They thought it was boring and uninspiring and it wouldn't allow people to congregate in the way that, you know, you wanted people to congregate in the city, so there was a lot of opposition to it.

VANEK SMITH: So why the grid? Why had the commissioners superimposed this soulless, unrelenting pattern over a verdant, untamed landscape? Why'd they slam a grid over the whole island?

HIRSCH: Tomorrow on the show, we take a look at the map that caused all the controversy and learn why the city commissioners decided on a grid.

VANEK SMITH: The answer, of course, is all about economics.


VANEK SMITH: This episode of THE INDICATOR was produced by Leena Sanzgiri and fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.


VANEK SMITH: So, Paddy, Paddy.


VANEK SMITH: Whodunit?

HIRSCH: Whodunit?


HIRSCH: I can't tell you. That's a spoiler.

VANEK SMITH: Really? Really?

HIRSCH: Yes. You've got to buy the book.

VANEK SMITH: Can - give us a hint.

HIRSCH: I can't give - no, I can't give you a hint.


HIRSCH: OK, here's the hint.


HIRSCH: In any murder mystery, you've got to ask yourself, who benefits?

VANEK SMITH: Oh, that's a good hint. I'll take that hint.

HIRSCH: There you go. There you are.

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