New York City Growth Profits

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The picture that is focused on in this essay conveys a message from past leaders who believed they could manage, control, and profit from the growth of New York City with a grid system throughout its landscape. They envisioned a partitioned landscape that could enhance and manage various aspects of New York City life. Their idea was brilliant as it increased opportunities to manage the island efficiently. They felt New York City’s development over time would be facilitated with an efficient grid system. However, they were never able to fully manage and control the city’s growth. One of the main reasons was that they were more focused on organizing land to promote sales and leasing of the land than on managing the city and its growing population. Many attempts were made to create order, something which was missing from the city. For instance, the land of the Southern tip of Manhattan was unorganized and uneven. Various grid system ideas emerged over time. One of the first people to plan a grid system, which would organize the land into ‘lots’, was ‘the Common Lands mapmaker Casimir Goerck.’

The major drawback of his proposed grid system was that it did not support the idea of streets to facilitate transport or the bigger vision of managing a rapidly increasing population. It was only focused on the selling and leasing of large lots of land in order to increase sales, and in turn to increase subsequent lease rates, and further increase the land sales again. His proposal was declined eventually. However, his plan was the backbone for the city’s current grid system. During the time of Goerck’s appointment, New York was in a huge Revolutionary War debt. The city officials wanted to increase revenue to pay off that debt. They believed that by dividing the landscape into blocks of land called ‘lots’ to facilitate the lease or sale of land would help them achieve this goal. In the same year Goerck was hired, ‘fellow city surveyor Joseph François Mangin’ was chosen by the Common Council to plan a grid system. Mangin made an improved version of the grid by focusing on certain aspects, such as the alignment of streets. Even though his map was eventually rejected as well, it ‘prompted the city to begin thinking about its street system and stimulated the establishment of the street commission four years later, which led to the iconic grid.’

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The accumulation of various ideas over time led to the modern day grid system which was seen as a way to increase revenue from land sales and leasing. An interesting fact is New York City was not only profitable from land lease and sales, but also from its port systems. The port economy was a major source of revenue for the city. To maintain and enhance the port economy, an organized street system was essential to transport goods to and from the ports to facilitate the trade. For instance, the roads going from the East to West of Manhattan were constructed for convenient access to ports on either side of Manhattan. Despite the benefits of the grid system, New York City was still difficult to manage. One reason is that the grid system did not support the city’s rapidly growing population, because leaders underestimated the future growth of the city.

Also, the dimensions of the streets were planned at a time when there were no mechanical modes of transportation, such as cars and buses. In addition, early leaders did not consider the possibility of future skyscrapers. Finally, the grid was planned without extensive knowledge of the rugged and hilly terrain of Manhattan. Roads had to be dug into hills, rivers, etc. and pre-existing topography had to be leveled and smoothened to build roads in those regions. The grid system could not even be extended past 155th street for this reason. One of the major drawbacks discussed in this essay is the lack of consideration of topography of New York City at that time. Manhattan had a hilly, rugged landscape. In the Southern part of Manhattan, the land was not orderly divided. In the Northern side, there were many farms, marshes, hills, creeks, etc. that had to be encountered by the streets of the grid system going up North.

Moreover, the plan was such that 155 streets would be separated from their adjacent streets by only around 200 feet. Therefore, numerous ‘long, [but] narrow blocks’ were formed. As a result of this form, houses and buildings had to be constructed narrowly. To fit more amount of building into a specific unit of space, floors had to be stacked to accommodate all that needed to be within the buildings. Therefore, tall and skinny buildings would have been best suited for this particular land situation. However, tall buildings could not have been built just anywhere. The right type of wall material had to be used to bear enormous weights. Restrictions were placed on the number of floors allowed per building. One might suggest buildings with fewer stories, but of more length and width to satisfy the land constraints. However, as more land was used, more money had to be paid. So, if the buildings kept moving upwards, safety concerns arose. If the buildings moved outwards and horizontally, economic feasibility was spared. Therefore, even though the grid system was beneficial in numerous ways, the neglect of Manhattan topography lead to the inefficiency of the grid system.


  1. ‘G.’ In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition, edited by T.JACKSON KENNETH, KELLER LISA, and FLOOD NANCY V., 489-563. Yale University Press, 2010.
  2. ‘S.’ In The Encyclopedia of New York City: Second Edition, edited by T.JACKSON KENNETH, KELLER LISA, and FLOOD NANCY V., 1135-276. Yale University Press, 2010.
  3. The Greatest Grid. Accessed August 23, 2018.

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