REMARKS OF THE COMMISSIONERS FOR LAYING OUT STREETS AND ROADS IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, UNDER THE ACT OF APRIL 3, 1807
William Bridges, Map Of The City Of New York And Island Of Manhattan With Explanatory Remarks And References. New York: William Bridges, 1811.Under the terms of the Dongan Charter of 1686 the little English colonial city of New York that then occupied only the southernmost tip of Manhattan became the governing authority for the entire island. Equally important, the charter conferred on the new municipality ownership of all land in Manhattan that had not previously been granted or sold to individuals. Most of this enormous public domain--probably several thousand acres--lay north of what is now 23rd Street and included the central spine of Manhattan Island.
From time to time during the next century the city sold parts of its public domain to raise funds for municipal purposes while keeping taxes low. New York faced new needs following the Revolution. At that time at least 1300 acres of municipal land remained of the so-called Northern Commons whose irregular boundaries lay between the modern Third and Seventh Avenues. In 1785 the City Council ordered its surveyors to divide this tract into plots of 5 acres to be sold at auction. Middle Road, now Fifth Avenue, provided access to these parcels.
It was the time to buy real estate in Manhattan. In 1789 nine purchasers bought just under 200 acres for about $70 an acre. One of these areas was bounded by what are now Broadway, Lexington Avenue, and 32nd and 42nd Streets. Another occupied the rectangle formed by the future Third and Fifth Avenues and 42nd and 48th Streets.
The city changed its policy in 1796, directing its surveyor, Casimir Goerck, to locate two additional roads--now Park and Sixth Avenues--parallel to Middle Road. Additional five-acre parcels were laid out like the first in long rectangles with their narrow ends fronting the north-south roads. Half of these were put up for sale, and the other half--arranged to alternate with the parcels for sale--were made available for 21-year leases.
While the city's jurisdiction over the Common Lands was absolute, its powers to determine street alignment and widths where private ownership prevailed were less clear. Several maps recorded the existing street pattern early in the l9th century and included unofficial proposals for how new streets and squares might be developed. Evidently these suggestions created a good deal of controversy.
Finally, in February, 1807 the Common Council asked the state legislature for help in planning future streets. In a memorial sent to Albany the Council set forth its ultimate goal as "laying out Streets... in such a manner as to unite regularity and order with the public convenience and benefit and in particular to promote the health of the City...." They described their difficulties. One was the lack of authority of the Council to bind its predecessors to follow any plan. Other problems they stated were"equally palpable and of very considerable magnitude. The diversity of Sentiments and opinions which has heretofore existed and probably will always exist among the members of the Common Council, the incessant remonstrances of...[land owners]...against plans however well devised or beneficial wherein their individual Interests do not concur and the Impossibility of completing those plans thus opposed but by a tedious and expensive course of Law are obstacles of a serious and very perplexing nature."(1)The Memorial concluded with an unspecified plea for assistance, but probably in private the Council advised the legislators of the general nature of a solution they had in mind. This was the creation of a state-appointed commission with full powers to establish a binding plan for future streets and open spaces. The Council, or a majority of its members, was able to reach agreement on its composition, and on March 4, they recommended Simeon De Witt, Gouverneur Morris, and John Rutherford "as fit and proper persons to be appointed Commissioners of Streets and Roads...."(2)
A month later the Legislature sitting in Albany passed the necessary Statute. It gave the Commissioners "exclusive power to lay out streets, roads, and public squares, of such width, extent, and direction, as to them shall seem most conducive to public good, and to shut up, or direct to be shut up, any streets or parts thereof which have been heretofore laid out... [but] not accepted by the Common Council." Their geographic jurisdiction extended from what is now Houston Street to the north end of the Island. Along the Hudson and East Rivers the boundaries were extended 400 feet beyond the low water mark.
Main streets were to be no less than 60 feet in width, and no street was to be less than 50 feet wide. When these planned streets were opened, the city was to purchase the land required at "reasonable compensation." Where landowners objected to the proposed payment or where land was owned by minors or mental incompetents, three disinterested persons were to be appointed by a court to determine the proper compensation. Payments could be offset in whole or in part by benefit assessments, and when assessments were approved by the court and the city, payments from the assessment fund were to be made to those whose land had been taken.
No compensation was to be paid for buildings erected in any of the planned streets or open spaces after the plan was filed. Existing buildings could remain in place "for such time as...[the City]...shall think proper," and when their removal was necessary, the owners would receive proper compensation.
The Commissioners could enter on any land during daylight hours to perform their surveys and for their services were to receive $4.00 per day plus expenses. It was generally understood--and subsequent practice so observed--that the city could not deviate from the plan without securing specific legislative authorization. The city also surrendered additional powers, for the Act provided that if the owners of 3/4 of the frontage along any of the planned streets or open spaces petitioned for a street or square to be opened, the city had to proceed as if it had taken the initiative.(3)
With Gouverneur Morris as its president and John Randel, Jr., as its chief engineer and surveyor, the Commission set to work in 1807, but it was not until March 22, 1811, just under the four years allowed by the Act, that they were able to file their official plan and their report justifying their design for the future metropolis. It had not been an easy task. In an account written some years later, Randel recalled that he "was arrested by the Sheriff, on numerous suits instituted...for trespass and damage by...workmen, in passing over grounds, cutting off branches of trees. &c., to make surveys under instructions from the Commissioners."(4)
On one occasion the surveyors were driven off the land by a woman selling vegetables by a barrage of artichokes and cabbages. A supplementary Act had to be passed in 1809 authorizing removal of trees and other obstructions, with compensation to the land owners. Even so, the Commissioners and their survey crews apparently faced almost unanimous opposition from those owning or claiming title to property within their jurisdiction.
The full text of the Commissioners' report follows. The reader may notice a curious omission: the failure to mention the earlier establishment of the three north-south roads and the division into five-acre parcels of that portion of Manhattan then or formerly in municipal ownership. The three roads became part of the north-south system of avenues in the Commissioners' plan, and the north and south boundary lines of the five-acre parcels fixed the location and spacing of the 155 cross streets that connect the Hudson and East Rivers.
Given the freehold and leasehold disposition of the common land by previous city officials it is difficult to see how the Commissioners could have done anything else without encountering massive criticism and resistence by those owning or leasing land under terms established prior to 1807. Why the Commissioners did not use this as their reason for adopting a grid plan instead of "those supposed improvements, by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effects as to convenience and utility" remains a mystery.Note: the map is a version redrawn for Harper's Weekly, an image selected for its better legibility in a web document.
The Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York appointed in and by an act relative to improvement touching the laying out of streets and roads in the city of New York, and for other purposes, passed the third day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seven, according to the form and effect of the said act, remark on the map hereunto annexed:
That as soon as they could meet and take the oath prescribed they entered on the duties of their office, and employed persons to make surveys of Manhattan island, which they personally reconnoitered, so as to acquire the general information needful to the correct prosecution of their work, which has been much delayed by the difficulty of procuring competent persons on those economical terms which they prescribed to themselves, and by reasons peculiarly unfavorable.
That one of the first objects which claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that 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. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive.
Having determined, therefore, that the work in general should be rectangular, a second, and, in their opinion, an important consideration was so to amalgamate it with the plans already adopted by individuals as not to make any important changes in their dispositions.
This, if it could have been effected consistently with the public interest, was desirable, not only as it might render the work more generally acceptable, but also as it might be the means of avoiding expense. It was therefore a favorite object with the Commissioners, and pursued until after various unsuccessful attempts had proved the extreme difficulty, nor was it abandoned at last but from necessity. To show the obstacles which frustrated every effort can be of no use. It will perhaps be more satisfactory to each person who may feel aggrieved to ask himself whether his sensations would not have been still more unpleasant had his favorite plans been sacrificed to preserve those of a more fortunate neighbor. If it should be asked why was the present plan adopted in preference to any other, the answer is, because, after taking all circumstances into consideration, it appeared to be the best; or, in other and more proper terms, attended with the least inconvenience.
It may to many be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health. Certainly if the city of New York was destined to stand on the side of a small stream such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful. But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous. When, therefore, from the same causes the prices of land are so uncommonly great, it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence than might, under circumstances of a different kind, have consisted with the dictates of prudence and the sense of duty. It appears proper, nevertheless, to select and set apart on an elevated position a space sufficient for a large reservoir when it shall be found needful to furnish the city, by means of aqueducts or by the aid of hydraulic machinery, with a copious supply of pure and wholesome water. In the meantime, and indeed afterwards, the same space may be consecrated to the purposes of science when the public spirit shall dictate the building of an observatory. It did not appear proper, only it was felt to be indispensable, that a much larger space should be set aside for military exercise, as also to assemble, in the case of need, the force destined to defend the city. The question, therefore, was not and could not be whether there should be a grand parade but where it should be placed and what should be its size; and here, again, it is to be lamented that in this late day the parade could not be brought further south and made larger than it is without incurring a frightful expense. The spot nearest to that part of the city already built which could be selected with any regard to economy is at the foot of those heights called Inklingberg, in the vicinity of Kip's Bay. That it is too remote and too small shall not be denied; but it is presumed that those who may be inclined to criticism on that score may feel somewhat mollified when the collector shall call for their proportion of the large and immediate tax which even this small and remote parade shall require.
Another large space, almost as necessary as the last, is that which, at no distant period, will be required for a public market. The city of New York contains a population already sufficient to place it in the rank of cities of the second order, and is rapidly advancing towards a level with the first. It is, perhaps, no unreasonable conjecture that in half a century it will be closely built up to the northern boundary of the parade and contain four hundred thousand souls. The controlling power of necessity will long before that period have taught its inhabitants the advantage of deriving their supplies of butcher's meat, poultry, fish, game, vegetables, and fruit from shops in the neighborhood. The dealers in those articles will also find it convenient, and so will those from whom they purchase, to meet at one general mart. This has a tendency to fix and equalize prices over the whole city. The carcass butcher, gardener, farmer, &c., will be able to calculate with tolerable accuracy on the rate at which the supplies he furnishes can be rendered; and the reasonable profit of the retailer being added will give a price for the consumer varying rather by the quality of the articles than by any other circumstance. It is no trifling consideration that by this mode of supplying the wants of large cities there is a great saving of time and of the articles consumed. To a person engaged in profitable business one hour spent in market is frequently worth more than the whole of what he purchases; and he is sometimes obliged to purchase a larger quantity than he has occasion to use, so that the surplus is wasted. Moreover, the time spent by those who bring articles of small value from the country in retailing them out bears such great proportion to the articles themselves as to increase the price beyond what it ought to be.
In short, experience having demonstrated to every great aggregation of mankind the expedience of such arrangement, it is reasonable to conclude that it will be adopted hereafter, and there fore it is proper to provide for it now. Neither it is wholly unworthy of consideration that the establishment of a general mart will leave open the spaces now appropriated to that object in parts of the city more closely built than is perfectly consistent with cleanliness and health.
The place selected for this purpose is a salt marsh, and, from that circumstance, of inferior price--though in regard to its destination of greater value--than other soil. The matter dug from a large canal through the middle, for the admission of market-boats, will give a due elevation and solidity to the side; and in a space of more than three thousand feet long and upward of eight hundred wide there will, it is presumed, after deducting what is needful for the canal and markets, be sufficient room for carts and wagons without incommoding those whose business or curiosity may induce them to attend it.
To some it may be a matter of surprise that the whole island has not been laid out as a city. To others 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. They have in this respect been governed by the shape of the ground. It is not improbable that considerable numbers may be collected at Harlem before the high hills to the southward of it shall be built upon as a city; and it is improbable that (for centuries to come) the grounds north of Harlem Flat will be covered with houses. To have come short of the extent laid out might therefore have defeated just expectations; and to have gone further might have furnished materials to the pernicious spirit of speculation.
To the better understanding of the map, it will be proper to recollect, in examining it, that the term avenue is applied to all those streets which run in a northerly direction parallel to each other. These are one hundred feet wide, and such of them as can be extended as far north as the village of Harlem are numbered (beginning with the most eastern, which passes from the west of Bellevue Hospital to the east of Harlem Church) 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and 12. This last runs from the wharf at Manhattanville nearly along the shore of the Hudson river, in which it is finally lost, as appears by the map. The avenues to the eastward of number one are marked A, B, C, and D. The space between the First and Second avenues is six hundred and fifty feet; from the Second to the Third avenue is six hundred and ten feet. The spaces from the Third to the Fourth, from the Fourth to the Fifth (which is the Manhattanville avenue or Middle road), and from the Fifth to the Sixth avenue, are each nine hundred and twenty feet. The spaces west of number six are each of them eight hundred feet. The westerly side of the Avenue A begins at the intersection of the northerly side of North street by the westerly side of Essex street. The northerly side of Avenue B begins at the intersection of the northerly side of North street by the westerly side of Trundle street. The westerly side of Avenue C begins at the intersection of the northerly side of North street by the westerly side of Pitt street; and the westerly side of Avenue D begins at the intersection of the northerly side of North street by the westerly side of Columbia street. Those passages which run at right angles to the avenues are termed streets, and are numbered consecutively from one to one hundred and fifty-five. The northerly side of number one begins at the southern end of Avenue B and terminates in the Bower lane; number one hundred and fifty-five runs from Bussing's Point to Hudson river, and is the most northern of those which is was thought at all needful to lay out as part of the city of New York, excepting the Tenth avenue, which is continued to Harlem river and strikes it near Kingsbridge. These streets are all sixty feet wide except fifteen, which are one hundred feet wide, viz.: Numbers fourteen, twenty-three, thirty-four, forty-two, fifty-seven, seventy-two, seventy-nine, eighty-six, ninety-six, one hundred and six, one hundred and sixteen, one hundred and twenty-five, one hundred and thirty-five, one hundred and forty-five, and one hundred and fifty-five--the block or space between them being in general about two hundred feet.
The southern side of the Third street touches the northeastern corner of the house occupied by Mangle Winthorn, opposite the southerly side of Jones street; and the blocks between the First and Third streets are of equal width. The northern side of Fifth street touches the northerly side of Monument No. 5 and the blocks between Third and Fifth streets are of equal breadth. The northerly side of Sixth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 6.
The northerly side of Seventh street touches the southern side of Monument No. 7, and most the streets from the first to the seventh, inclusive, extend beyond the Bowery, and near the eastern side of which Monuments Nos. 5, 6, and 7 are placed.
The northerly side of Eighth street touches the southwestern corner of a house built on the northerly side of Stuyvesant street, heretofore so called, and easterly side of the Bowery. The northerly side of Ninth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 9. The northerly side of Tenth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 10, and after crossing the Sixth Avenue becomes the southerly side of the same Tenth street. The northerly side of Eleventh street touches the northerly side of Monument No. 11. The three last-mentioned monuments are placed near the easterly side of the Bowery road; and the Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh streets extend westwardly to Greenwich lane. The southerly side of Sixteenth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 16, placed near the western side of the Bloomingdale road. The blocks between Eleventh and Sixteenth streets are of equal breadth, and the Twelfth and Thirteenth streets extend westward to Hudson river, being interrupted, nevertheless, by a northeasterly angle of Greenwich lane. All the streets except First and Second streets (which run into North street) extend eastwardly to the Sound, or East river; and all the streets from Thirteenth street northward extend from river to river, saving where they are interrupted by public places or squares. The southern side of Twenty-first street touches the northern side of Monument No. 21, placed near the western side of the Bloomingdale road; and the blocks between Sixteenth and Twenty-first streets are of the same width. The northern side of Forty-second street touches the southern side of Monuments Nos. 1 and 42, placed four-tenths of a foot eastward of the westerly side of the First avenue; and the blocks between the Twenty-first and Forty-second streets are of equal width. The northern side of the Seventy-first street touches the southern side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 71, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Forty-second and Seventy-first streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of Eighty-sixth street touches the northwardly side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 86, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Seventy-first and Eighty-sixth streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of Ninety-sixth street touches the southwardly side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 96, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Eighty-sixth and Ninety-sixth streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of the One hundred and Twenty-fifth street touches the southwardly side of Monuments marked 1 and M, whose eastwardly side is four-tenths of a foot between the westerly side of the First avenue; and the blocks between the Ninety-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth streets are of the same width. The southerly side of the One Hundred and Fifty-third street touches the northern side of the ten-mile stone on the Kingsbridge road, at the surface of the earth, and all the blocks northward of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street are of the same width. All the avenues extend southward to the boundary marked out by the statute, except the Fourth, which stops at the Fifteenth street, being there lost in Union place. This place is irregular trapezium, bounded (as appears on the map) westwardly by Bloomingdale road, southwardly by Tenth street, eastwardly and northwardly by the Bowery road, Broadway (which is continued out to the Parade), Fifteenth street, the Fourth avenue, and Sixteenth street. This place becomes necessary, from various considerations. Its central position requires an opening for the benefit of fresh air; the union of so many large roads demands space for security and convenience, and the morsels into which it would be cut by continuing across it the several streets and avenues would be of little use of value.
There are sundry small places equally the children of necessity, viz.: One bounded northerly by Second street, southwardly by North street, and westwardly by the Avenue C; another bounded northwardly by First street, southwardly by Ninth street, and westwardly by the First avenue; and a third being the space south of Seventh street and west of the Third avenue.
The market-place already mentioned is bounded northwardly by Tenth street, southwardly by Seventh street, eastwardly by the East river, and westwardly by the First avenue. The Parade is bounded northwardly by Thirty-second and Thirty-fourth streets, southwardly by Twenty-third street, eastwardly by the Third avenue from Twenty-third to Thirty-second street, and by the Eastern Post road from the Thirty-second to the Thirty-fourth street, and westwardly by the Seventh avenue; being in its greatest length from east to west little more than 1,350 yards, and in its breadth from north to south not quite 1,000. Bloomingdale square is bounded northwardly by Fifty-seventh street, southwardly by Fifty-third street; eastwardly by the Eighth and westwardly by the Ninth avnues. Hamilton square is bounded southwardly by Sixth-eighth street, southwardly by Sixty-sixth street, eastwardly by the Third and westwardly by the Fifth avenues. Manhattan square is bounded northwardly by Eighty-first street, southwardly by Seventy-seventh street, eastwardly by the Eighth and westwardly by the Ninth avenues. Observatory place, or square for reservoirs, is bounded northwardly by Ninety-fourth street, southwardly by Eighty-ninth street, eastwardly by the Fourth, and westwardly by the Fifth avenues. Harlem Marsh is bounded northwardly by the Hundred and Ninth street, southwardly by the Hundred and Sixth street, eastwardly by the Sound, and westwardly by the Fifth avenue. Finally, Harlem square is bounded northwardly by the Hundred and Twenty-first street; southwardly by the Hundred and Seventeenth street, eastwardly by the Sixth and westwardly by the Seventh avenues.
The position of all the monuments will be seen on the map, and also the several elevations taken above high-water mark. In witness whereof the said Commissioners have hereunto set their hands and seal the twenty-second day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eleven.
SIMEON DE WITT
1. 1. MCC, 1784-1831, IV, 353-54, 16 Feb., 1807.
2. MCC, IV, 368, 4 March 1807.
3. An Act relative to Improvements, touching the laying out of Streets and Roads in the City of New-York, and for other purposes. In William Bridges, Map of the City of New-YorkandIslandof Manhattan.... New York: William Bridges,1811, 5-8.
4. John Randel, Jr., "City of New York, north of Canal Street, in 1808 to 1821," in D. T. Valentine, Manual of the Corporation ofthe City of New-York, 1864, p. 848.