Creating our Manhattan Poster - A Short History of Manhattan's Street Grid

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Have you ever navigated your way across a new city and felt like you were wandering a maze? Well, you are not alone. In the graphic novel version of Paul Aster's "City of Glass," the main character Quinn contemplates how walking in Manhattan feels like wandering a maze.
Paul Aster City of Glass Maze Manhattan

Manhattan is famous for it's gridiron street plan - a dizzying array of 200+ numbered streets and countless intersections. Peering down one of it's famous avenues for a long stretch, your eyes are met by a wall of buildings on either side stretching as if to infinity.

Empire State Building in New York City

Most American cities were designed as an orthogonal grid - Philadelphia was the first. The orthogonal grid was the favored design for street planning as it was orderly and repetitive with origins in Roman city planning. Designing streets in a grid was first brought to the Americas by the Spanish as a means to quickly divide and assign land while imposing control and order.

Manhattan Skyline in New York City

While the origins of the geometric street grid of modern cities is perhaps less than romantic, it is the very geometric grid design of many American cities from which Dirt Alley Design is able to create our cool maze maps! The more geometric and right angled the street grid, the more mazy we can make our city maps. One of my personal favorite maze maps is our Chicago poster, Chicago's rigid street grid is a great base for a mazy map.

Chicago poster

Prior to the early 1800's and long before Manhattan became a "concrete jungle", Manhattan was an island of farms, country roads, wetlands, hills and streams. That all changed after the creation of the Commissioner's Plan of 1811 which laid out a vision for the present day grid of right angles and straight lines paving the way for the city to become an urban powerhouse (and concrete jungle).

Alphabet City in New York

"Manahatta" was named by the Lenape tribe native to the area for being an "island of many hills." The Commissioner's Plan of 1811 required flattening those very hills. It was accomplished through the iron will of the government despite the protests of property owners many of whose existing homes were on top of what the plan deemed to be streets. Contrast this with San Francisco's grid, which was also laid over the hills (irrespective of topography), but protests from property owners prevented its scenic hills from being razed!

Sutro Towers in San Francisco

While at first glance, Manhattan's grid looks deceptively even on a map, it's far from perfect geometric order. The southern portion of Manhattan first developed as a sprawl of streets around the port long before the Commissioner's Plan of 1811. You can see this in the bottom portion of the design of our Manhattan poster:

Manhattan poster

Manhattan's blocks are also not evenly space, nor similarly sized. This became evident to me while designing the Manhattan maze. Manhattan's famed Broadway was also initially effaced from the Commissioner's Plan but endured on as the city developed, the city's lone diagonal outlier is a gentle curve through the city's mesh of right angles, and the inspiration for many a photo visualization project such as On Broadway.

By the time the city's development was nearing the top of the island, the citizens of Manhattan began to think better of the "great march northward" resulting in some of the city's remaining hilly topography from being razed.

To learn more about the development of Manhattan's grid in excessive detail, check out "The Greatest Grid".

About Dirt Alley Design

Dirt Alley Design was founded just off a dirt alley in San Francisco in December of 2016 by artist Michelle Chandra. Inspired by the beauty of street grids, Michelle invented maze maps in which she transforms street grids into mazes. 

Our maze art isn't just decorative art for your home, it's a real puzzle maze you can solve (if you dare!) We think our maze maps are pretty cool, but don't take just our word for it! We've been featured in LaughingSquidThe Creator's Project, Untapped Cities and UpOutSF.

manhattan urban planning

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