The Grid of Manhattan


The first time you come to New York, especially as a foreigner, you are surprised by the sight of that little tourist map you get. Streets and avenues, that’s all there is to it.
The map looks like it’s been drawn with a ruler. And, in fact, that’s the case. To understand why that is, we have to go back in time and down to the southernmost point of Manhattan. That’s where the Dutch arrived in their sailing ships. They saw the place and must have liked it. It surely wasn’t the skyline that did it. More surely the treeline. Anyway, they stayed. New Amsterdam was born, first as a small settlement, and then grew bigger. A couple of houses here and there, a street that connects them, but no plan was followed. It’s the organic way European medieval towns grew. A collection of houses, maybe a square or two and curving streets running through it.
It must have been fun here. More and more people came. And the English wanted to live here too. They found that “New York” sounded better. The place was soon bursting out of its bounderies. It was time for some serious expansion. But the only way was up. They came to an “agreement” with the local “manhattan” tribe and bought the rest of the swampy island for “a dime or two”.
Some iconical modern times urban planning was in the making: the grid. The most simple street plan imaginable. The streets run east to west. The avenues run south to north. The streets get numbered south to north. The avenues east to west.
If you take a good look at your tiny map, you’ll notice this one crooked street that seems to stubbornly break through this otherwise so perfect plan. Broadway. It has always been a broad way, even during the Manhattan tribe times. And, should we say miraculously, it has survived.
This explains Manhattan’s grid. And also the more meandering streets downtown. It’s the only place in Manhattan where you can get lost, where you can have a hard time finding the right street. No such thing on a checkerboard, where you only have to know how to count in order to find your destination.
It’s simple. Very simple. But sometimes also boring. Every block has the same length and width. Walking the street has no surprise. No unexpected twist in the road. If it wasn’t for New York’s very distinct districts, neighborhoods and landmarks, it would be an extremely boring city to walk in.
What am I saying!? Twice a year, the grid allows us to witness the Manhattanhenge phenomenon, where the low rays of the setting sun align perfectly with the city’s streets.

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2 thoughts on “The Grid of Manhattan

  1. Gives me a Tokyo vibe… sigh

  2. lieve.db says:

    There she goes…I was there to witness it and of course a lot of the grid itself…

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