Museum of the City of New York: the Greatest Grid & the Unfinished Grid

The too-often overlooked Museum of the City of New York, residing all stately on the Carnegie Hill stretch of Fifth Avenue, right across the street from the spectacular (and also often-overlooked) Central Park Conservatory Garden, has a terrific pair of free exhibitions going on all winter. One that history buffs, armchair city planners, and New York City enthusiasts should definitely try to catch. Called the Greatest Grid (what Manhattan has had for two centuries) and the Unfinished Grid (what we may have in the future), these terrific sister shows commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the Commissioners' Plan that sealed the city's fortunate fate back in 1811. Not only does this free exhibition document the grid's beginnings, but also does a great job of examining the implications–social, architectural, financial, emotional–of the layout over the past two centuries. 

Among the highlights of the Museum of the City of New York's Greatest Grid exhibition are an original hand-drawn map of the city's planned streets and avenues from 1811 (at top); loads of other cool maps and documents (the "Map of Property" belonging to Clement Clark Moore "at Chelsea" is particularly awe-inspiring, and we liked the Valuable Real Estate Record, above, as well, for its straight-forwardness if nothing else); and plenty of mind-bending photographs and drawings of, for example, 42nd Street and Second Avenue in 1861, and Park Avenue and 94th Street around 1882 (below), when freestanding homes were scattered widely along the broad, traffic-free avenue. The exhibition points out that, in and of itself, the grid scheme wasn't really revolutionary in any way, but it was daring in that it required not a little bit of political force and finesse to be implemented, because almost all of the island north of Houston Street was privately owned at the time, and broken up into very un-gridlike lots. Convincing the landowners to make way for the Commissioners' Plan took some doing, but the city's promise of personal profit turned out to be prophetic, as the grid made the rich in this town vastly richer still. 

The companion exhibition to MCNY's Greatest Grid show is the futuristic, often fantastical Unfinished Grid: Design Speculations for Manhattan. Because as monotonous as Manhattan's grid might seem on paper, ever since the Commissioners' Plan was implemented, planners and developers have been coming up with ways to differentiate, even personalize, each neighborhood, each block, each building. And the grid itself is surprisingly flexible: Broadway, for example, cuts through six other avenues along it's route up and down the island, creating space for Union Square, Madison Square (above), Times Square, and Columbus Circle. But no matter what, New York City is expected to grow by at least a million more inhabitants over the next 50 years, so the museum issued a "Call for Ideas" from architects and designers on how to accommodate Huddled Masses 2.0, so to speak. Two of our favorite solutions: Tabula Fluxus (above), which proposes building a second grid some 700 feet above our current city (given the likely views, presumably well stocked with luxury housing); Projective Exceptions, which plops down ball-like buildings into intersection (at the expense of car traffic, one hopes); and the Informal Grid, which extends the city out onto the rivers by adding whole city "blocks" arranged in jagged chunks. Most of the ideas in the Unfinished Grid show seem extremely unlikely to ever come about… but then, if you had told the old-timey version of us at the turn of the 20th Century that they'd build Battery Park City atop landfill on the Hudson River, we'd have probably been equally skeptical then.

The Greatest Grid and The Unfinished Grid at the Museum of the City of New York details

The Grid exhibitions will be at the MCNY from now through April 15. The Museum of the City of New York is located on Fifth Avenue and 103rd Street, and is open every day from 10:00 a.m. until 6:00 p.m. For more information about everything, please see the MCNY website, here.      

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