Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Surveyor's Orderliness

A new book looks at the evolution of the Manhattan street grid:
To an astonishing degree, what we learn from The Measure of Manhattan, Marguerite Holloway’s biography of John Randel Jr., the chief designer and implementer of the grid, accords well with Levitch’s psychological profile of the consummate grid-supporter. His implication was a correct one: The grid is indeed a self-portrait.
Randel, who was born in Albany in 1787, grew up during “a surveying boom,” when a large portion of prominent American males—Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and later, Lincoln—served in the profession at some point. “His was the era of laying lines on the land,” Holloway declares. It was “a culture and a period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world—through exploration, experiment, science, cartography, and infrastructure—was celebrated.” Beginning in about 1804, Randel was hired to assist New York State surveyor-general Simeon Dewitt in his plan to grid upstate New York. Dewitt was influenced by the earlier plan to grid the entire United States, outlined in the 1785 “Ordinance for Ascertaining the Mode of Disposing of Lands in the Western Territory”—the reason why flyover country looks like a waffle iron.
In 1806 New York City’s governing Common Council appointed three “fit and proper persons”—including Dewitt—to devise a coherent strategy for northward development, preferably one that would “unite regularity and order with public convenience.” These commissioners recognized Randel—described throughout The Measure of Manhattan as “meticulous,” marked by “obsession and brilliance” and a “compulsion” central to his “sense of self”—as the perfect person for the job. He worked nearly every day of the dozen or so years he spent creating and then instituting the grid plan—“with increasing precision and obsession,” Holloway writes. He refused to survey or write on the Sunday Sabbath, and once resorted to paying an especially disorderly employee not to drink. He invented his own instruments when he found existing ones insufficient for the task, and had tantrums over surveying mistakes of piddling importance. Repeatedly set back by winter, wind, and rain; slowed by robbery and broken instruments; arrested and sued for cutting down trees; and once assaulted by an old woman wielding cabbages and artichokes after drawing a street through her kitchen—the surveyor’s main obstacle was his own finicky perfectionism. “Irregularities unsettled Randel,” as Holloway understatedly puts it.
Planning for the development of New York City beyond its northern border—then at Houston Street, called North Street, though pre-existing Greenwich Village was exempt—was regularly presented in Manichean terms of intellect against emotion, order against chaos. “We have suffered so much from pestilence,” a group of New Yorkers wrote to the mayor and Common Council just after Randel submitted his plan, “We have so severely felt the evil of confused Streets.” The plan’s geometric egalitarianism appealed to the young country’s democratic spirit, and, as Holloway persuasively argues, helped to “transform space into an expression of public philosophy.”
But once the Enlightenment started giving way to more Romantic notions of reason, order, solitude, space, and beauty, the grid became less popular. Frederick Law Olmsted, for instance, wrote that curved streets “imply leisure, contemplativeness, and happy tranquility,” while straight streets connote “eagerness to press forward, without looking to the right or left.”
This book will go on my to-read list.  Of all professions, surveyors and engineers seem like some of the most likely to be unsettled by irregularities.  While it has its limitations, I am a big fan of the rectangular survey system and of the street grid systems like those found in New York and other cities throughout the country.  Yes, I am unsettled by irregularities.  However, there are a number of them in my life that I just prefer to pretend they don't exist. 

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