In 1811, John Randel, Jr., picked up his pen for the last time as he finished his drawing for the street plan of Manhattan. The map was filed with the city in that same year. The completion of this monumental work was no easy task. Surveying an area of 34 square miles would prove difficult enough, but doing so under the threatening eyes of local property owners who did not agree with the survey made it especially hard. For four years Randel and his team experienced a kind of guerrilla warfare as locals ripped up their survey markers and even threw cabbages in protest. But the work was eventually completed and the grand project moved forward.
The map highlighted in this post, however, is not Randel’s plan. It is actually a copy of his work produced by William Bridges in 1814. While Randel was temporarily out of town, Bridges convinced the Common Council to allow him to produce an engraving for dissemination to the public. Randel was not pleased. He accused Bridges of stealing his work, not giving due credit (Randel’s name does not appear anywhere on Bridges’s map), and deceiving the Council. A modern reading of this historical exchange makes it sound like Bridges stole Randel’s work even though technically it was public record. In any case, the Bridges map is a beautiful portrayal of Manhattan’s future.
I found this map in the online archives of the Library of Congress. It is unique in its resolution. Oftentimes, conducting a search on Google Images will present you with disappointing thumbnails, cropped scans, or low resolution images making it impossible to perceive any detail. This map from the LOC, however, is as monumental as the plan itself: 34,550 pixels x 119,600 pixels at 300 ppi–that’s 4 billion pixels. At full size it would print at 9.5 feet x 33 feet–or 315 square feet (about as big as a Manhattan apartment). I have saved the image down a few steps to 15.9 mb which can be viewed by clicking on the image below.
In the following image I highlighted a few landmarks that came after the original survey. Notice the Empire State Building at 34th Street and 5th Avenue. At the time this map was originally drawn, that area of town was inhabited mostly by squatters, pigs, trees, and hills. The city commissioners had no idea the Empire State Building–let alone elevators, steel, or a city population of 7 million–was just over 100 years away. The grid, in its near infinite capacity and aptitude in accommodating the unknown, was there to soak it all up.
Fast forward two centuries from 1811 and you will find John Randel’s–and William Bridges’s–map still valid.