To even the most seasoned New Yorker the city south of 14th street can seem an almost alien city. Before the 1811 Commissioners Plan which created the NYC grid as we know it the city evolved more organically as cities had for millennial. Take a walk through Wall street and if it wasn’t for the forest of skyscrapers you would feel like you were navigating a European town. Downtown Boston has a similar feel as these two areas developed at the same time in the same organic ways.
But in 1811 these two cities took very different paths for their future growth. New York had a 13 mile island it had to tame and in 1811 the famous Commissioners Plan was adopted to regulate development by creating an monotonous grid of 155 streets and 16 avenues. Boston, due to its much more constrained geography, developed more like large puzzle pieces being added as the marshes and bays around the downtown area were filled, each with its own unique grid that didn’t conform to a greater plan (Bulfinch Triangle, South End, Back Bay).
An 1894 map of downtown Boston showing the original shoreline with land that has been added.
So when I discovered this peculiar map of lower Manhattan on Reddit’s Map Porn section I had to do a double take. Instead of the grid we know today the drafter of this map, published 4 years before the Commissioners Plan, proposed growing the city of New York in the same way that it had developed previously; that is to say large land holders would subdivide their farms (usually when the patriarch died) and would lay out new streets as they saw fit and connecting them to other streets at odd angles.
An interesting and unusual map, this is William Bridges’ 1807 revival or the failed 1801 Mangin-Goerck Plan. Those who know New York’s shoreline will pause at the perfect blocks and ridged angles of this plan no more accurate today than it was in 1801 when Mangin first presented it. Mangin, a talented French architect, and Goerck, an established New York Surveyor, were commissioned by the Common Council of New York to prepare a new regulatory map of the city. Though Goerck passed away before the plan could be completed, Mangin finished the plan on a grand scale, re-envisioning New York City in his own image. Mangin even added streets such as Mangin Street and Goerck Street which would have been submerged under the East River had they actually existed (as a side note another of Mangin’s Street’s, South Street, did eventually appear). The Mangin-Goerck plan went far beyond the Common Council’s dreams of an administrative plan and, due to its inclusion of “intended improvements”, new streets, and idealized block structure, enjoyed a short lifespan. It is curious then that in 1807 William Bridges, the talented City Surveyor who, in 1811, laid New York’s famous grid structure, resurrected and pirated the Mangin-Goerck Plan, attaching his own name to it. It was a private venture that led Bridges to piracy. He was commissioned by Dr. Samuel Mitchell to provide a map to illustrate Mitchell’s Picture of New York , a travel guide intended for foreign tourist. Perhaps Bridges chose the Mangin plan simply because, as a failed city plan, there were few obstacles to his use of it, but we do pity the hapless tourists who leapt into the east river in pursuit of Mangin Street. Though originally issued in 1807 for S. Mitchell’s Picture of New York , this example is a reissue prepared by John Hardy, Clerk of the Common Council, for the 1871 edition of the Manual of the Corporation of New York.
Like many maps and plans from this era it’s hard to tell what is real and what isn’t. Many city boosters published maps making their city look larger and more developed than rival cities even though the streets the maps depicted weren’t even cut yet! The red line on this version shows the dividing line between what is built today and what Bridges was proposing.
There is, however, one constant, a thorn in the side of the 1811 Commissioners Plan which is with us today: Stuyvesant Street. The large section north of Morris St on the 1807 map was the estate of Peter Stuyvesant, the famous Dutch Director-General who had the unfortunate privilege of surrendering the city to the English when the population of New Amsterdam refused to defend the city after his tyrannical rule (and you though Bloomberg was bad!). When Stuyvesant died the land which is today part of Gramercy, Stuyvesant Town (hence the name) and the East Village were given to his heirs who decided to subdivide and sell the land. The 1807 Bridges map shows this long forgotten plan. A few streets were laid but only three buildings were actually built before the city adopted the Commissioners Plan and demanded that the Stuyvesant heirs conform to the new plan. These three buildings still stand along a two block stretch of Stuyvesant St: St Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, the Hamilton-Fish House at 21 Stuyvesant St, and 44 Stuyvesant St (built in 1795).
The Stuyvesant plan envisioned a large wealthy neighborhood with streets running true North-South and East-West. It also (whether in the original plan or added later by Goerck) shows the addition of the newest urban design trend: London Squares. These public or private gardens offered it’s wealthy neighbors a refuge from the turbulent city. At this point in New York’s evolution there was only one existing such square, Hudson Sq (today’s St. John’s Park) which was a real estate development on the west side by Trinity Church (which historically took too long to develop as the wealthy residents of New York chose to settle along Broadway). These squares would have most likely been private and entry was only given to the neighbors, each with their own key. Gramercy Park is the only remaining park like this in New York.
Close up view of the new Squares and Crescents proposed.
Two of these small parks, labeled as “Crescents” on the 1807 map, would have been more for show rather than for relaxing. Chester Sq in the South End of Boston is a perfect example of what was proposed.
A 1938 map of the South End of Boston showing city parks and squares laid out similar to the 1807 Bridge’s Map.
I’ve created this side-by-side comparison so you can see how the two grids are different but contain the same elements. Two things really stand out: the placement of Hamilton Sq is almost identical to the modern day Stuyvesant Sq and the East River was filled in about the same amount as proposed in 1807, just conforming to the new grid.
Artists rendering of the Inner Belt Expressway through Cambridge, MA
I had a nice phone interview with Eric Jaffe from The Atlantic Cities (a website I fell in love with the second I found it) last week. He had discovered many of the maps I have made over the years and wanted to write a quick article on what I do. He was really cool and interested in the maps I make and I have to say it was cool to talk with someone who is into this same crazy thing. If you have read anything on this site before you’ve seen the maps but the article gives you a nice little back story about me and why I do this.
History is filled with city plans that, for one reason or another, never became anything more. Some of them find their way into archives or museums. Some of them still await funding or completion or destruction in a sort of civic purgatory. And some of them are revived, at least in a digital sense, by hobbyist mapmaker Andrew Lynch.
The 28-year-old Lynch posts an eclectic array of urban design work at his website, Vanshnookenraggen. (The name is a nonsense word he made up in high school and used because he figured — correctly, obviously — that the domain would be available.) His creations over the years include a Google Map rendering that depicts the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway and a hypothetical subway map of Boston.
I have no idea why I didn’t post this in July when it came out. About a year ago I accompanied a Columbia Journalism student, Brian Eha, on a couple explores as he was writing his master thesis on the subject of Urban Exploring. Usually explorers are pretty tight lipped but since I’m not as active as I used to be I’m more open to talking with others about it. Brian and I explored the Glenwood Power Station in Yonkers and the Freedom Tunnel under Riverside Dr. in Manhattan. I posted the pictures from Glenwood here but the Freedom Tunnel was too dark when we went to get any good shots, though I have posted a couple here. The article is a great read and I was happy to help.
In New York City, when night falls, a number of doors and less obvious passageways open onto another city. One of these is the mouth of the Amtrak tunnel that runs under Manhattan’s Riverside Park. In December 2011, after five months of living full-time in the mundane city, I need a vacation, a respite not so much from the beloved city herself but from what cities increasingly consist of: light, noise, human and automobile traffic, crowded streets and stores and subway cars, trash and blackened gum on the sidewalks, the appalling tons of flotsam that wash up around us. For nearly half a year the only vistas have been vistas of human habitation. And so one cold night I take it upon myself to walk for nearly 60 blocks through the underground waste of the Riverside Tunnel, known colloquially as the Freedom Tunnel after Chris “Freedom” Pape, a graffiti artist whose murals made it famous among a certain subset of the population for whom spending time in dark tunnels is not unusual, and is even considered fun. My companion this night, Andrew Lynch, is one of this number, young and blond like me, but taller and less muscular, lanky with an easy stride. By day he sells real estate on the Upper West Side. By night—not every night, and increasingly fewer nowadays, but some nights even now—he’s an urban explorer.
The old elevated subways that once rumbled through the streets of America’s great industrial cities have, since the end of World War II, been slowly replaced by more modern subways in places like Chicago, Boston, and New York. Elevated lines fell out of fashion in the early part of the 20th Century due to the noise, dirt, and shadows they produced. These old relics of the Victorian era were once the cutting edge of technology and transportation but, like all technologies, were quickly replaced and deemed obsolete. Newer elevated subway systems built after the 1960s use concrete and resemble highway ramps rather than a spiderweb of steel and are less disruptive then their forefathers.
But when these old tracks are ripped down what becomes of them? I’ve written a lot over the years about the politics and planning when an elevated subway gets torn down. I recently came across a great documentary almost 20 years old that follows the steel used in the Washington St Orange Line from demolition to rebirth as a highway bridge in Arizona.
Conservation of Matter: The Fall and Rise of Boston’s Elevated Subway
This documentary follows the journey of 100,00 tons of steel from the Boston Elevated Subway, which was erected in 1898, demolished in 1987, then shipped eight thousand miles away to be melted re-formed into steel bars. These then cross the ocean again, where they are ultimately re-fabricated into a remarkable new structure in a surprising location. Workers, historians, preachers, politicians, on lookers, artists, children, architects, and astrophysicists on two continents address the significance of the process as it unfolds. Winner: Editing Award, 1996 New England Film/Video Festival; Audience Choice and Judge’s Grand Prize, 1997 U.S. Super 8mm Film/Video Festival.
This is a fantastic documentary which details the journey from elevated to scrap to highway via the people it touches along the way. I like the scientist there to remind us that, after all, these are just atoms that get moved around and we are the ones that infuse the steel with emotion and history. It is fitting that the steel once in an elevated train line would be used for a new highway bridge. Recycling at it’s finest.
The second film I came across looks at the 3rd Ave El in New York, not so much about the history of it’s demolition but more a rosy 1950s style look through a day in the life of an el train.
What I love about both movies is how we are the ones that have the connection to these structures. We use them everyday; they are a part of our lives. And just like us they have a life span which one day will end. They are just structures of steel and wood but they mean different things to different people. To the real estate developers they once meant a way to open up vast new lands for development but then switched to being a hindrance to growth. To the people living next to them they were either a nuisance that disturbed or a reliable form of entertainment. To the rider they were your way to work and home that provided a unique view of the city. While riding out to Astoria to see friends over the last 7 years I’ve always been transfixed by the ever changing skyline rolling past the window.
Atlantic Ave El demolition.
During the post-War years the old els were seen as a rusting relic and obstruction to progress. Much of the problem with els were that cities didn’t take care of them. As less intrusive transportation options opened up they were quickly demonized and were blamed as leading to many of the ills of the industrial city. No longer seen as modern, els in New York, Brooklyn, Boston, and Chicago were torn down and either replaced with subways or buses. New York ran gung-ho into tearing down its elevated lines as soon as the subway proved popular and later when the car took over. A number of lines still exist in Brooklyn, the Bronx and Queens but the Manhattan lines were demolished with nothing left to show for them (save a short section in Inwood). During World War II the Atlantic Ave el in Boston, which was shuttered due to low ridership in the 1930s, became scrap for the war effort.
What I find interesting is as time went on people began to warm up to these structures and began to question their demolition much like the historic preservation movement took off. These structures were as historic as any great mansion on 5th Ave in their own right. As noted in the documentary about the Orange Line, it was the first all electric elevated subway in the world (New York’s and Chicago’s elevated lines started out as steam) and many of the stations (much like today) were products of architectural competitions. Wipe away the decades of dirt and grime and you begin to understand how revolutionary and revered these structures were.
Northampton Station at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Maine.
Chicago had an arguably more positive view for its elevated system and while certain lines were cut back and stations closed the city has kept it’s system in good working order. The elevated Orange Line in Boston met it’s fate but not after preservation groups were able to salvage the Northampston St station designed by Alexander Wadsworth Longfellow, Jr, although today it sits unused and rotting at the Seashore Trolley Museum in Maine.
As more and more people have begun to rediscover the city, and as old industrial cities have begun to clean up their image, these old relics have suddenly been rediscovered. Elevated train lines that once covered neighborhoods with smoke and shadow have lain unused for so long that nature has taken over and we see them as the opposite of what they once were. Once an industrial backbone of Manhattan’s West Side the High Line connecting slaughter houses and warehouses the High Line has been rediscovered and reimagined as a world renowned park and has inspired cities with elevated rail lines from Chicago to Philadelphia to rethink these once maligned structures.
John Sloan “The City From Greenwich Village” 1922
Maybe it’s the nostalgic noir of an Edward Hopper painting or the rush of watching Jimmy Doyle drive after the D train in Brooklyn in The French Connection. Maybe it’s the first time you came downtown as a kid and marveled had the transformative experience of riding above the city and walking under the hulking steel beams, the energy and motion and sounds and sights that you’ll never get on a tree lined suburban street. Maybe it’s the stories your grandfather told you of taking the el to work everyday in a city that exists only in fading memory. Whatever it is we seem to have have a collective memory for these structures and whether we tear them down to build new things with their atoms or we find an innovated reuse for the existing structures the elevated trains of yore seem to still have an emotional pull.