The Greatest Grid

If you love maps, this exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York is pure Cartesian catnip. The Grid, of course, refers to our inexorable succession of parallel streets that city commissioners (read, developers) imposed upon Manhattan in 1811.

The message the exhibit sends is somewhat mixed. On one hand, we are asked to admire, as the introductory inscription suggests, the “human intervention and vigilant enforcement” that allowed the city to escape the fate of Lower Manhattan — meandering streets and, incidentally, a quaint and definable character. Inscribed on another wall, however, is a quote from a rueful Clement C. Moore, himself a developer, who described the task of leveling of the island.

“Nothing” he wrote, “is to be left unmolested that does not coincide with the Street Commissioners’ plummet and level. These are men who…would have cut [through] the seven hills of Rome.”

Although the planners envisioned the city running a rigorous east to west – all north/south traffic to be borne by the rivers – they were bested by the actual needs of a human population. Manhattanites lived uptown and went to work downtown, necessitating a widening of the vertical avenues. This had the happy effect of opening up the island’s interior, and the avenues — Broadway, Park, Madison, etc. — became far more famous than their numerical cross streets.

The exhibit’s run has been extended to July 5. Be sure to go mid-afternoon on weekdays. On weekends, it’s jammed.