Simeon De Witt, Gouverneur Morris and John Rutherfurd were entrusted with planning the city back in 1811. New York huddled mostly south of Canal Street, but it was booming, its population having tripled to 96,373 since 1790 thanks to the growing port.
The planners proposed a grid for this future city stretching northward from roughly Houston Street to 155th Street in the faraway heights of Harlem. It was in many respects a heartless plan. There were virtually no parks or plazas. The presumption was that people would gravitate east and west along the numbered streets to the rivers when they wanted open space and fresh air, and not spend lots of time moving north or south. That partly explains why there were only a dozen avenues.
In the abstract, the idea was really nothing revolutionary; grid plans went back to ancient Greece and Rome. But installing one in Manhattan was deeply subversive because, while still undeveloped, the island was already parceled into irregularly shaped, privately owned properties.
This meant the appropriation of land and reconstruction. First, Manhattan had to be surveyed, a task that took years. Property lines had to be redrawn, government mobilized for decades on end to enforce, open, grade and pave streets. Some 60 years passed before the grid arrived at 155th Street. Streets were still “rough and ragged” tracks for a long while, as one diarist observed in 1867, describing a recently opened stretch around 40th Street and Madison Avenue as a mess of “mud holes, goats, pigs and geese.”