Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Make Me a Map: John Randel Jr., and the Manhattan grid


Much of Manhattan was made long in the past–or long enough ago that its boundaries are often seen as acceptable and natural, while the people who live on the fringe (read: above 96th Street) are easily forgotten when defining the character of the city. (This tendency became briefly regretful when, during Superstorm Sandy, word got out that people in Washington Heights were taking hot showers, getting drunk, and enjoying a day off while everyone downtown stumbled around in the dark). Certainly there are exceptions; Columbia’s expansion into West Harlem, and its disruption of neighborhood borders, gets lots of coverage from uptown blogs like Harlem + Bespoke, which are both agents and critics of gentrification.

Across the island, the once-firm border of East 96th Street between Spanish Harlem and the Upper East Side is no longer impenetrable, with hipsters venturing all the way to 97th and Park for a snack at Earl’s Beer and Cheese, and of course Sandy herself reminded New Yorkers that the sea will eat away the edges of their home, but for the most part Manhattan’s structure seems written in stone–usually granite.

Marguerite Holloway’s new book, The Measure of Manhattan, spreads those boundaries open and snaps them apart by telling the history of surveying on the island, and how that story is written into the body of the land, starting with bolts left in the granite. The book’s fixation on the natural landscape of Manhattan Island and the people who transformed it is reminiscent of last year’s The Greatest Grid exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, but reading it is a far more intimate experience than going to the museum–and not only because holding a book is cozier than tromping through a gallery. Holloway’s relationship to the city is personal, and she is aware that the city itself was made by people, for them to live in. The book is subtitled “The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor,” and he’s the man who gave the island its grid; the book is his biography as much as the city’s. In the introduction, Holloway writes:

“Many people have such a relationship to a tree, a house, a park, an orchard, a
street, a copse, a creek–a place where we can feel and see several eras at once, a place where environmental imagination permits simultaneity. In rare wonderful moments, these places allow time travel and size shifting. Different maps become transparent and overlapping.”

Here are the three most surprising overlaps I found:
1. Houston Street, now south of almost everything, was once called North Street, and above it were farms, woods, and country houses.
2. The entrance to Central Park at 59th Street and 5th Avenue is the only straight transverse in the park (Olmstead was a great believer in meandering), while 59th Street itself is the only one on the grid that Randel laid off-kilter–a full 1.8 inches short.
3. Diamond and Jewelry Way (West 47th Street between 5th and 6th Avenues) used to be woods full of wild turkeys, while the Bowery used to be full, not of restaurant suppliers, but of jewelry stores. (The possibility of bedazzled turkeys is too tempting not to consider.)

So next time you’re taking a walk in the city, look around. If Holloway is sure of anything, it’s that a map is always an opinion. Think about the invisible borders we create–your friends who don’t leave Brooklyn used to be the people who wouldn’t venture above 14th Street–and how they come to define their neighborhoods. Think of real estate-coined neighborhood names and their connotations: TriBeCa and Nolita are vernacular by now, but are you okay with MiMa? John Randel, Jr. called it how he saw it. And how Randel called it is what we all see.

The Measure of Manhattan (W.W. Norton, 384 pp.) will be released on February 18.