In the 1830s, New York was a small city. While the island of Manhattan had a prosperous community at its southern end, its northern area contained farms, villages, streams, and woods. Then on the evening of 16 December 1835, a fire broke out near Wall Street. It swept away 674 buildings and though the devastation seemed absolute, citizens quickly rebuilt. They pushed development up the island, so that by the Civil War homes lined the streets near the new Central Park.
Learn about the Great Fire of 1835, and the city that existed before and grew after that blaze in this series of blog posts from Daniel S. Levy, author of Manhattan Phoenix: The Great Fire of 1835 and the Emergence of Modern New York.
There had been attempts to lay out streets in New York going back to its founding. It was a process that would go on for the next few centuries, and would only accelerate in the decades before and after the Great Fire of 1835. In 1625, right after the Dutch settled what was then known as New Amsterdam, the engineer and surveyor Cryn Fredericksz devised a rough grid for the town’s roads. The Dutch were attracted to the southern tip of the island for its inlets and streams, and there created waterways similar to those found in Holland. Present-day Broad Street, for instance, was once a small stream that ran through a marshy area, which they transformed to Heere Gracht, Gentleman Canal.
By the late 18th century, the canals were covered and a number of streets in lower Manhattan were paved. Even so, traveling around the island could be rough going since much of it was covered by rocky outcroppings. At the start of the 19th century, most assumed that there would never be much growth to the north. By then, a field in what was then the northern part of the city—where City Hall and its park now stands—had become a popular spot for holding public rallies. It became known simply as “The Park.” When City Hall was built the early 1800s at the Park’s northern end, only the southern, western, and eastern facades were sheathed with white marble; the northern side featured less expensive brownstone, since it was assumed that no one would go around to the back.
At this point, the island’s original topography was being transformed. The Collect Pond, which stood to the north of City Hall, was gone. Streams like the Minetta, which flowed through what is now Washington Square Park, were routed through undergrounds channels. Sun Fish Pond in the lower 30s, where New Yorkers once fished for eels and sunfish and in the winter ice-skated, would soon be drained and filled.
In order to ensure an orderly development for the island, the state legislature on 3 April 1807 appointed Gouverneur Morris, Simeon De Witt, and John Rutherfurd to decide the street pattern above Houston Street. The commissioners were granted the authority “to lay out streets, roads and public squares of such width, extent and direction as to them shall seem most conducive to public good.” To map the land, they hired the surveyor John Randel Jr. Randel started trekking across the island, making his way around the ponds, through meadows and marshes and over outcroppings, and staking the land.
Some did not care for his measuring and mapping their property. Historian Martha Lamb wrote how on one occasion, he and his crew were drawing the line of an avenue directly through the kitchen of “an estimable old woman, who had sold vegetables for a living upwards of twenty years.” As they worked, Randel and his men “were pelted with cabbages and artichokes until they were compelled to retreat.”
Undaunted, Randel finished his survey in 1810. His plan for the city included the suggestion that the varied topography be taken into consideration for a number of streets. Morris, De Witt, and Rutherfurd, though, ignored such concessions. Instead of creating a civic design with ovals and diagonal layouts—like that laid out by Pierre Charles L’Enfant in Washington, D.C.—their Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 set up a scheme that focused entirely on growth. To do that, they imposed upon the land a rigid grid of streets and avenues. As the commissioners noted, “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.”
All these perpendicular roads ran regardless of the location of streams, hills, and outcroppings. This regular system of roads included a dozen 100-foot-wide, north–south avenues. The streets began at Houston Street, with 155 east–west roadways set 200 feet apart. Since the city relied so heavily on the rivers for trade, the traffic naturally flowed toward the water. Broadway was the only existing road allowed to continue its meandering path. The idea that the whole island would be developed seemed chimerical at the time, and the commissioners saw no reason to plan above 155th Street. As they commented, “It may be a subject of merriment, that the Commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.”
Hills were leveled and streams were filled. Since planned streets ran through private property, the city had to take possession of the land, a process that proved to be long and tortuous. Not surprisingly, many landowners objected to the grid. Author Clement Clarke Moore, for one, did not like the city taxing him for streets cutting through his Chelsea estate. In 1818, the author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” which begins with the line, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” published A Plain Statement, Addressed to the Proprietors of Real Estate in the City and County of New York. In it he derided how “The great principle which appears to govern these plans is, to reduce the surface of the earth as nearly as possible to a dead level.”
But there was good money to be made as the populated parts of the city moved northwards. Prominent families started selling off their estates. The Stuyvesants developed their property around current-day Tompkins Square in the East Village. Swamps were drained, and in the mid-1830s the city created a small park, whose presence only further caused the area to boom. Soon even Moore got into the real estate business.
Many others were bitten by the real estate bug. Bowery Theatre manager Thomas Hamblin bought and sold some 20 lots. James Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s son, recalled how “From 1825, when I purchased eighty lots of ground, I devoted my attention to making money by dealing in real estate in New York and Brooklyn, and building houses, with very marked success.” Development was made easier by Randel’s grid, which standardized growth. So as its population soared, immigrants streamed in, developers subdivided the land, and buildings along with thousands of businesses and row houses rose, then were razed or burned down, they were quickly replaced by newer, grander ones.
As the city continued its northward expansion with streets stretching out, everything was being regimented to the grid. Walt Whitman would note in 1849 that “streets cutting each other at right angles, are certainly the last things in the world consistent with beauty of situation.” And while the plan allowed for structured expansion and—as a side benefit—made responding to fires easier, the grid sealed the city’s position as the ultimate real estate boomtown.
Read the next blog posts in the series:
- New York City: The Great Fire of 1835
- New York City: the life and times of the Bowery Theater
- New York City: the streams and waterways of Manhattan
Feature image by William Bridges. Surveyed by John Randel Jr. This map is available from the United States Library of Congress Map Division under the digital ID g3804n.ct000812.