"Remarks of the Commissioners for Laying Out Streets and Roads in the City of New York, Under the Act of April 3, 1807," in Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1866, comp. D. T. Valentine (New York, 1866), pp. 756-63.
The Commissioners of Streets and Roads in the City of New York appointed in and by an act relative to improvement touching the laying out of streets and roads in the city of New York, and for other purposes, passed the third day of April, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and seven, according to the form and effect of the said act, remark on the map hereunto annexed:
That as soon as they could meet and take the oath prescribed they entered on the duties of their office, and employed persons to make surveys of Manhattan island, which they personally reconnoitered, so as to acquire the general information needful to the correct prosecution of their work, which has been much delayed by the difficulty of procuring competent persons on those economical terms which they prescribed to themselves, and by reasons peculiarly unfavorable.
That one of the first objects which claimed their attention was the form and manner in which the business should be conducted; that is to say, whether they should confine themselves to rectilinear and rectangular streets, or whether they should adopt some of those supposed improvements by circles, ovals, and stars, which certainly embellish a plan, whatever may be their effect as to convenience and utility. In considering that subject they could not but bear in mind that a city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in. The effect of these plain and simple reflections was decisive.
Having determined, therefore, that the work in general should be rectangular, a second, and, in their opinion, an important consideration was so to amalgamate it with the plans already adopted by individuals as not to make any important changes in their dispositions.
This, if it could have been effected consistently with the public interest, was desirable, not only as it might render the work more generally acceptable, but also as it might be the means of avoiding expense. It was therefore a favorite object with the Commissioners, and pursued until after various unsuccessful attempts had proved the extreme difficulty, nor was it abandoned at last but from necessity. To show the obstacles which frustrated every effort can be of no use. It will perhaps be more satisfactory to each person who may feel aggrieved to ask himself whether his sensations would not have been still more unpleasant had his favorite plans been sacrificed to preserve those of a more fortunate neighbor. If it should be asked why was the present plan adopted in preference to any other, the answer is, because, after taking all circumstances into consideration, it appeared to be the best; or, in other and more proper terms, attended with the least inconvenience.
It may to many be a matter of surprise that so few vacant spaces have been left, and those so small, for the benefit of fresh air and consequent preservation of health. Certainly if the city of New York was destined to stand on the side of a small stream such as the Seine or the Thames, a great number of ample places might be needful. But those large arms of the sea which embrace Manhattan island render its situation, in regard to health and pleasure as well as to the convenience of commerce, peculiarly felicitous. When, therefore, from the same causes the prices of land are so uncommonly great, it seems proper to admit the principles of economy to greater influence than might, under circumstances of a different kind, have consisted with the dictates of prudence and the sense of duty. It appears proper, nevertheless, to select and set apart on an elevated position a space sufficient for a large reservoir when it shall be found needful to furnish the city, by means of aqueducts or by the aid of hydraulic machinery, with a copious supply of pure and wholesome water. In the meantime, and indeed afterwards, the same space may be consecrated to the purposes of science when the public spirit shall dictate the building of an observatory. It did not appear proper, only it was felt to be indispensable, that a much larger space should be set aside for military exercise, as also to assemble, in the case of need, the force destined to defend the city. The question, therefore, was not and could not be whether there should be a grand parade but where it should be placed and what should be its size; and here, again, it is to be lamented that in this late day the parade could not be brought further south and made larger than it is without incurring a frightful expense. The spot nearest to that part of the city already built which could be selected with any regard to economy is at the foot of those heights called Inklingberg, in the vicinity of Kip's Bay. That it is too remote and too small shall not be denied; but it is presumed that those who may be inclined to criticism on that score may feel somewhat mollified when the collector shall call for their proportion of the large and immediate tax which even this small and remote parade shall require.
Another large space, almost as necessary as the last, is that which, at no distant period, will be required for a public market. The city of New York contains a population already sufficient to place it in the rank of cities of the second order, and is rapidly advancing towards a level with the first. It is, perhaps, no unreasonable conjecture that in half a century it will be closely built up to the northern boundary of the parade and contain four hundred thousand souls. The controlling power of necessity will long before that period have taught its inhabitants the advantage of deriving their supplies of butcher's meat, poultry, fish, game, vegetables, and fruit from shops in the neighborhood. The dealers in those articles will also find it convenient, and so will those from whom they purchase, to meet at one general mart. This has a tendency to fix and equalize prices over the whole city. The carcass butcher, gardener, farmer, &c., will be able to calculate with tolerable accuracy on the rate at which the supplies he furnishes can be rendered; and the reasonable profit of the retailer being added will give a price for the consumer varying rather by the quality of the articles than by any other circumstance. It is no trifling consideration that by this mode of supplying the wants of large cities there is a great saving of time and of the articles consumed. To a person engaged in profitable business one hour spent in market is frequently worth more than the whole of what he purchases; and he is sometimes obliged to purchase a larger quantity than he has occasion to use, so that the surplus is wasted. Moreover, the time spent by those who bring articles of small value from the country in retailing them out bears such great proportion to the articles themselves as to increase the price beyond what it ought to be.
In short, experience having demonstrated to every great aggregation of mankind the expedience of such arrangement, it is reasonable to conclude that it will be adopted hereafter, and there fore it is proper to provide for it now. Neither it is wholly unworthy of consideration that the establishment of a general mart will leave open the spaces now appropriated to that object in parts of the city more closely built than is perfectly consistent with cleanliness and health.
The place selected for this purpose is a salt marsh, and, from that circumstance, of inferior price--though in regard to its destination of greater value--than other soil. The matter dug from a large canal through the middle, for the admission of market-boats, will give a due elevation and solidity to the side; and in a space of more than three thousand feet long and upward of eight hundred wide there will, it is presumed, after deducting what is needful for the canal and markets, be sufficient room for carts and wagons without incommoding those whose business or curiosity may induce them to attend it.
To some it may be a matter of surprise that the whole island has not been laid out as a city. To others it may be a subject of merriment that the Commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China. They have in this respect been governed by the shape of the ground. It is not improbable that considerable numbers may be collected at Harlem before the high hills to the southward of it shall be built upon as a city; and it is improbable that (for centuries to come) the grounds north of Harlem Flat will be covered with houses. To have come short of the extent laid out might therefore have defeated just expectations; and to have gone further might have furnished materials to the pernicious spirit of speculation.
The southern side of the Third street touches the northeastern corner of the house occupied by Mangle Winthorn, opposite the southerly side of Jones street; and the blocks between the First and Third streets are of equal width. The northern side of Fifth street touches the northerly side of Monument No. 5 and the blocks between Third and Fifth streets are of equal breadth. The northerly side of Sixth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 6.
The northerly side of Seventh street touches the southern side of Monument No. 7, and most the streets from the first to the seventh, inclusive, extend beyond the Bowery, and near the eastern side of which Monuments Nos. 5, 6, and 7 are placed.
The northerly side of Eighth street touches the southwestern corner of a house built on the northerly side of Stuyvesant street, heretofore so called, and easterly side of the Bowery. The northerly side of Ninth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 9. The northerly side of Tenth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 10, and after crossing the Sixth Avenue becomes the southerly side of the same Tenth street. The northerly side of Eleventh street touches the northerly side of Monument No. 11. The three last-mentioned monuments are placed near the easterly side of the Bowery road; and the Eighth, Ninth, Tenth, and Eleventh streets extend westwardly to Greenwich lane. The southerly side of Sixteenth street touches the southerly side of Monument No. 16, placed near the western side of the Bloomingdale road. The blocks between Eleventh and Sixteenth streets are of equal breadth, and the Twelfth and Thirteenth streets extend westward to Hudson river, being interrupted, nevertheless, by a northeasterly angle of Greenwich lane. All the streets except First and Second streets (which run into North street) extend eastwardly to the Sound, or East river; and all the streets from Thirteenth street northward extend from river to river, saving where they are interrupted by public places or squares. The southern side of Twenty-first street touches the northern side of Monument No. 21, placed near the western side of the Bloomingdale road; and the blocks between Sixteenth and Twenty-first streets are of the same width. The northern side of Forty-second street touches the southern side of Monuments Nos. 1 and 42, placed four-tenths of a foot eastward of the westerly side of the First avenue; and the blocks between the Twenty-first and Forty-second streets are of equal width. The northern side of the Seventy-first street touches the southern side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 71, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Forty-second and Seventy-first streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of Eighty-sixth street touches the northwardly side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 86, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Seventy-first and Eighty-sixth streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of Ninety-sixth street touches the southwardly side of Monuments Nos. 5 and 96, whose westerly side is placed on the eastwardly side of the Fifth avenue; and the blocks between the Eighty-sixth and Ninety-sixth streets are of the same width. The northwardly side of the One hundred and Twenty-fifth street touches the southwardly side of Monuments marked 1 and M, whose eastwardly side is four-tenths of a foot between the westerly side of the First avenue; and the blocks between the Ninety-sixth and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth streets are of the same width. The southerly side of the One Hundred and Fifty-third street touches the northern side of the ten-mile stone on the Kingsbridge road, at the surface of the earth, and all the blocks northward of the One Hundred and Twenty-fifth street are of the same width. All the avenues extend southward to the boundary marked out by the statute, except the Fourth, which stops at the Fifteenth street, being there lost in Union place. This place is irregular trapezium, bounded (as appears on the map) westwardly by Bloomingdale road, southwardly by Tenth street, eastwardly and northwardly by the Bowery road, Broadway (which is continued out to the Parade), Fifteenth street, the Fourth avenue, and Sixteenth street. This place becomes necessary, from various considerations. Its central position requires an opening for the benefit of fresh air; the union of so many large roads demands space for security and convenience, and the morsels into which it would be cut by continuing across it the several streets and avenues would be of little use of value.
There are sundry small places equally the children of necessity, viz.: One bounded northerly by Second street, southwardly by North street, and westwardly by the Avenue C; another bounded northwardly by First street, southwardly by Ninth street, and westwardly by the First avenue; and a third being the space south of Seventh street and west of the Third avenue.
The market-place already mentioned is bounded northwardly by Tenth street, southwardly by Seventh street, eastwardly by the East river, and westwardly by the First avenue. The Parade is bounded northwardly by Thirty-second and Thirty-fourth streets, southwardly by Twenty-third street, eastwardly by the Third avenue from Twenty-third to Thirty-second street, and by the Eastern Post road from the Thirty-second to the Thirty-fourth street, and westwardly by the Seventh avenue; being in its greatest length from east to west little more than 1,350 yards, and in its breadth from north to south not quite 1,000. Bloomingdale square is bounded northwardly by Fifty-seventh street, southwardly by Fifty-third street; eastwardly by the Eighth and westwardly by the Ninth avnues. Hamilton square is bounded southwardly by Sixth-eighth street, southwardly by Sixty-sixth street, eastwardly by the Third and westwardly by the Fifth avenues. Manhattan square is bounded northwardly by Eighty-first street, southwardly by Seventy-seventh street, eastwardly by the Eighth and westwardly by the Ninth avenues. Observatory place, or square for reservoirs, is bounded northwardly by Ninety-fourth street, southwardly by Eighty-ninth street, eastwardly by the Fourth, and westwardly by the Fifth avenues. Harlem Marsh is bounded northwardly by the Hundred and Ninth street, southwardly by the Hundred and Sixth street, eastwardly by the Sound, and westwardly by the Fifth avenue. Finally, Harlem square is bounded northwardly by the Hundred and Twenty-first street; southwardly by the Hundred and Seventeenth street, eastwardly by the Sixth and westwardly by the Seventh avenues.
The position of all the monuments will be seen on themap, and also the several elevations taken above high-water mark.
In witness whereof the said Commissioners have hereunto set their hands and seal the twenty-second day of March, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eleven.
SIMEON DE WITT
1. Note the authors' concern about economy, especially in the cost of acquiring land for public purposes, a result of the city's decision of sell its land to help pay debts in the aftermath of the Revolutionary War. Thus at the time this plan was developed the city was, in effect, facing the need to buy land it had sold only a few years earlier, at vastly increased cost.
2. Why do the commissioners devote so much attention to minute details--location of roads, monuments, etc? what was at stake for property-owners? for developers? etc.
3. What do the commissioners consider the the most important elements or attributes of a city? why? were these adequate, especially given the commissioners' optimism about New York's rapid growth?