The Map That Made Manhattan : Planet Money Manhattan is known for being a grid. But 200 years ago, it was a hilly, bucolic wilderness. The transformation all started with a secret map. And the reason was all about economics.
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The Map That Made Manhattan

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The Map That Made Manhattan

The Map That Made Manhattan

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IAN FOWLER: That's real. That's real.


So would you mind introducing yourself?

FOWLER: I am Ian Fowler. I'm the geospatial librarian and curator of the Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal map division at New York Public Library.


He didn't even take a breath.

VANEK SMITH: I know. It's impressive. And where are we right now?

FOWLER: We are in the stacks of the map division here at New York Public Library.

VANEK SMITH: And what are we looking at right now?

FOWLER: We are looking at the commissioner's plan of New York, which is, to put it broadly, the plan that had the grid for the first time.

HIRSCH: The original grid, the OG.


HIRSCH: (Laughter) We could stop whispering now. New York is famous for being laid out in a giant grid. It seems obvious and even natural now. But back when this map was introduced to the public in 1811, no one had ever seen anything like it.

FOWLER: It's not the first grid in the United States, but it was going to be the greatest grid.

VANEK SMITH: And this map is really beautiful. It is, like, 8 feet long, and it's on six different big sheets of parchment.

HIRSCH: Brilliant. Such an amazing map. It's beautiful, too, isn't it? Look. All of the...

VANEK SMITH: It is beautiful. It's very colorful.

HIRSCH: Yeah, it's gorgeous.

VANEK SMITH: But people did not really see it that way back in 1811. It was kind of a shock when it was released. There had been a lot of fanfare around the making of the map. It had been drawn up in secret by a group of city commissioners.

HIRSCH: We talked about the drawing of the secret map on the show yesterday. If you missed that, you should go back and have a listen.

VANEK SMITH: Back in 1811, New York was this tiny, dirty port city. It had fewer than a hundred thousand people. And the city was mostly these skinny, meandering streets with tent cities and farms.

HIRSCH: Most of Manhattan was this wild, forest-y landscape, rolling hills, cliffs, marshes. And then these commissioners dropped this map that slices the whole island up into uniform squares - essentially a plan to squash the bucolic island flat like a bug and pave it over. It was pretty radical.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. New York was set to become a living, breathing Excel spreadsheet.

HIRSCH: The horror.

VANEK SMITH: The horror, for real.

This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

HIRSCH: And I'm Paddy Hirsch. Today on the show, we're at the library...

VANEK SMITH: We're at the library.

HIRSCH: ...With Ian Fowler, trying to keep our voices down and learn about the great grid of New York - why the city planners for New York decided on the grid.

VANEK SMITH: When the map of New York was released in 1811, it was kind of a shocker.

HIRSCH: Yeah. Ian Fowler says people kind of freaked out. The big world capitals at the time were these organic, sprawling cities like Rome, Paris, London.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. Meandering streets, the Thames, Montmartre, the seven hills of Rome - I mean, that's a city.

HIRSCH: There was real disagreement about it, but clearly, they lost.

VANEK SMITH: So why not let the hills be hills and the city be more organic? Why the grid?

HIRSCH: There were four main reasons for the grid. The first was health.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah. There had been these terrible epidemics of yellow fever and other diseases that had swept through the city. And there was this theory at the time that the diseases were spread in stagnant air. So a grid would, you know, keep the air circulating, kind of flowing.

HIRSCH: So good for public health. And New York was growing very fast. It was already shaping up to be one of the most important cities in the United States.

VANEK SMITH: Really, the economic engine of this new country, which brings us to the second reason the commissioners chose the grid - housing.

HIRSCH: The commissioners said as much in a statement they released along with the map, saying, quote, "A city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in."

VANEK SMITH: Is that your circa-1800s voice? (Laughter).

HIRSCH: I think that's how people used to speak back then.

VANEK SMITH: They were very tense a lot of the time 'cause of the noncirculating air.

HIRSCH: It constricted the throat muscles.

VANEK SMITH: It's true. I mean, everything about this map was very precise.

HIRSCH: The avenues were apparently drawn out to be exactly 100 feet wide, and the streets were all 60 feet wide. And the grid ran all the way up the island.

VANEK SMITH: That was, you know, good for housing and a boon for New York's budding real estate business in general. Ian says these little chunks, these little city blocks, were pretty uniform in size, and that meant the land could be easily priced.

HIRSCH: And these - the blocks that we have - they're slightly varying in size. But I understand this - is it the larger ones were an acre in size?


HIRSCH: And in 1800, there's a record of a farmer buying, I think, 50 of these blocks, and they were $400 each - so $400 for a block of Manhattan.

VANEK SMITH: How much would that be now?

FOWLER: (Laughter) I don't know if $400 would pay for the parking for you to look at the block (laughter).

VANEK SMITH: It's probably true. Four hundred dollars sounds like a good indicator.

HIRSCH: That's a great indicator. Yes.

VANEK SMITH: So Paddy, let's make that our indicator - $400, the price of a city block in Manhattan back in 1811. If we adjust that to today's dollars, it's about 8,000 bucks.

HIRSCH: So part of the grid logic had to do with air circulation. Part of it was real estate.

VANEK SMITH: But Ian says there was a larger economic vision at play. Reason No. 3 for the grid - it made it easier to move goods around, from the buzzing ports at the south of the island to the busy roads to the canals that were being built to move goods across state lines.

HIRSCH: Ian Fowler says the 1811 grid branded New York as a city built for business.

FOWLER: This was going to be a city that was built for commerce. This was going to be a city that functioned exclusively for industry and for making New York the economic capital of the United States. And so what you want is easy transport of goods and people from the north to the southern tip, from the southern tip to the north and then across the island. So it's really making it so that there's no roundabouts; there's no weird Boston-ish streets.

HIRSCH: So none of this European froufrou kind of organic or beautifully planned circles and roundabouts and, you know, rococo whatever. It's tough, industrial grid.

VANEK SMITH: Straight lines, efficiency...

HIRSCH: Efficiency - lots of efficiency. There wasn't even a park on the map. There was only one lousy green space, and it was set aside for military drills. It was called the parade. It's right around where Madison Square Garden is today.

VANEK SMITH: But the grid was also rational and predictable, kind of egalitarian. Phillip Lopate, an essayist at the time, said the grid was, quote, "impossible to overpraise."

HIRSCH: Yeah, but in fairness, Phillip was kind of an outlier. Popular sentiment was not team grid. There were a lot of critics and a lot of real harm done to New Yorkers. A lot of tenant farmers were displaced by the great grid. They lost their jobs and their homes. Whole communities were just pushed out. Landowners were basically forced to sell their land to the city because some avenue was set to run straight through their kitchen.

VANEK SMITH: Yeah, emphasis on the word straight. That was kind of the elephant in the room with this map. The straight avenues and streets seemed to ignore the fact that Manhattan was, you know, like, not a pancake.

HIRSCH: Not at all. The word Manhattan comes from a native word meaning island of many hills. And Ian points out you can see all the hills in the topography markings on the 1811 map.

FOWLER: What is interesting about the map is it does reflect the topography of the time period. So it's obviously pre-grid, pre-flattening of Manhattan. So you...

VANEK SMITH: They flattened it?

FOWLER: Oh, yes. And then so they flattened the entire island. They gridded it out.

HIRSCH: This was an enormous undertaking. There were no backhoes back then or steamrollers.

VANEK SMITH: You can see drawings and paintings of how they made this moving of the earth happen. There were these huge teams of men standing shoulder to shoulder with pickaxes and shovels and horses pulling carts full of soil and rock, moving up the island as a unit, flattening everything out.

HIRSCH: For one city block, the survey reported they moved nearly 8 billion gallons of dirt just to get a flat surface - for one block.

VANEK SMITH: This was totally horrifying to many people. New Yorker and writer Clement Clarke Moore said, quote, "Nothing is to be left unmolested. These are men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome."

HIRSCH: (Laughter) By the way, Clement was a landowner, and he made a small fortune selling his land to the city to be flattened.

VANEK SMITH: Well, you know...


VANEK SMITH: If you can't beat them, make a tidy profit.

HIRSCH: It did mean a lot of jobs for people low in the city at the time.

VANEK SMITH: Yes, absolutely. And they worked quickly. I mean, just 60 years later, most of the 1811 map had been realized all the way up to 155th St. Hills had been raised. Farms had been paved over. And by then, Central Park had been added to bring, you know, a little bit of nature back to the grid.

HIRSCH: Contained nature (laughter). And the map worked. They built the city, and it came. More than 200 years later, New York is a flat, paved grid, tailor-made for efficiency and commerce and one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The architect Rem Koolhaas pronounced this map the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization.

VANEK SMITH: A special thanks to the New York Public Library and Nora Lyons for letting us see the map.

Today's episode was produced and fact-checked by Nadia Lewis. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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