The Greatest City Grid: New York or Chicago?

By Christopher Szabla May 15, 2012

Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago

Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid," the still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.

The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.

Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore Park

Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.

Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.

Rooftop prairie, in the River North district

With little of the troublesome topography of an island’s craggy coastlines or steep hills like those that once existed on Manhattan to constrain it, Chicago’s site proved the perfect tabula rasa for the kind of street system an obsessive-compulsive might construct. The Chicago grid initially consisted of arterial routes laying along Land Ordinance lines. When more finite divisions were needed, streets were laid out at even intervals — eight or sixteen per mile. There were exceptions and interventions — Chicago’s geography isn’t one hundred percent conducive to perfect geometric forms, and the city’s grid does have to accommodate meandering rivers and an uneven lakeshore — but the city has resisted efforts, after the grid was established, to impose any new planning scheme.

Chief among them was Daniel Burnham’s Chicago Plan of 1909, a product of the then-vogue City Beautiful movement, which stressed Beaux Arts monuments highlighted by radial avenues. Burnham’s plan took inspiration from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World’s Fair that had featured temporary versions of the monumental, classical edifices Burnham planned to sprinkle throughout a Chicago sliced by boulevards not dissimilar to those recently imposed by Baron Haussmann — the sort of streets that were increasingly envied among New York’s elite. Yet only one of Burnham’s avenues was ever built. Instead, that same year, Chicago’s government decided to regularize the grid along lines of extreme mathematical precision.

The intersection of State and Madison Streets was chosen at the centerpoint. From there, all streets were designated either north, south, east, or west of those respective lines. The point was more critical, though, for addresses. House numbers we assigned at 800 to a mile, with major arterial streets at each mile away from the State/Madison intersection. And while streets have names, their address coordinates respective to either State or Madison remain a critical identifier, used to designate these streets on locally-produced maps. Blocks can be counted in hundreds; “twelve-hundred north” on any street refers explicitly to the block that’s twelve north of Madison.

The system also includes alphabetized street names (each mile-long east-west segment contains north-south streets that begin with the same letter) and spreads far beyond the city limits into Illinois suburbs. It goes as far as addresses in the 30,000 range and even into parts of Indiana, which continues the grid with north-south streets that would only exist theoretically in Chicago proper, since the city’s Indiana suburbs exist far enough to the southeast of the city that they are able to spread to the south of Lake Michigan. Undulating expressways and the occasional diagonal street occasionally do interrupt the net, but not with such regularity that it ceases to be the dominant feature scratching the land.

An idealized version of the Chicago grid

By contrast, New York’s grid numbering system scarcely encompasses the majority of Manhattan and only barely manifests itself in the Bronx, the only outer borough into which it makes an incursion. The city commissioners who laid it down insisted the initial grid end at 155th Street in order to discourage “speculation,” and their intransigence may have discouraged the street numbering system from travelling much beyond Manhattan.

That hasn’t stopped curious geographers from attempting to overlay the city’s grid on the surface of the entire earth. Thanks to them, we now know that Tokyo, for example, would lie at 43,968th Avenue and 47,556th Street. The commissioners (whose love of right angles had more to do with the way they formed allowed for maximum rentable real estate) may have been right to seek limits on speculation indeed; the spherical nature of the earth forces a grid that attempts to impose itself over all of it to become less than perfectly rectilinear. The globalized New York grid converges in Uzbekistan, where 127,000th Street forms a circle.

A universally extended Chicago grid would likely face the same problem. Given that its street pattern fits seamlessly into the Land Ordinance survey lines that were mapped from Ohio to Minnesota, an expansive definition of the grid as it currently exists might already include a vast chunk of continent. The Chicago grid is large enough for the often-overshadowed “second city” to  claim its street system bests the size and integrity of New York’s — greater, in that sense, than the “Greatest Grid." But the fact is that, on a sphere, no grid can both trace the land and keep to ninety degree angles ad infinitum.

Gazing down on the city from the air at night, Chicago’s streets look like an illuminated circuitboard, crisscrossed wires (or circulating highways) and all; a closer view reveals more subtle manifestations of the city’s geometricity: a straightened lakeshore or baseball diamonds arranged to look like a game of tic-tac-toe. They’re at once tributes to the city’s attempts to come as near as possible to its right angular ideal, and, in their tiny imperfections, also point toward an inevitable failure — like New York’s in kind, if not degree — to achieve fully that dream’s perfection.

From Urban Photo. Follow Szabla on Twitter.

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