Audubon Park: Defying the “Tyranny of the Grid”

Two hundred years ago today, New York City’s street commissioners – officially designated as “The Commissioners for Laying Out Streets and Roads in the City of New York, under the Act of April 3, 1807” – certified the plan that transformed the island’s forests and farms, marshes and streams, rocks and hills into a repetitive pattern of north-south avenues and east-west streets. Developed primarily to encourage real estate development, the grid plan has been the subject of debate ever since, some pundits arguing that it spurred orderly growth, others that it robbed Manhattan of the elegant avenues, circles, and public squares found in some European cities (particularly Paris). Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood a geographer who wrote his Master’s thesis on the grid plan, calls it “a physical representation of the Cartesian coordinate system” and proposes that besides encouraging real estate growth, “the grid’s designers also sought to create a disciplined population to suit the needs of the emerging capitalist economy of the American Empire.”

In the 19th Century, the grid plan was conspicuous in Audubon Park by its absence. Even today, a century after the city extended 156th and 157th Streets west of Broadway, Riverside Drive’s irregular path through the Audubon Park Historic District – a legacy of the Grinnell family’s political connections and powers of persuasion – creates the illusion of a grid-free zone. How did that happen?

Audubon Park on an 1873 Map of the City of New York North of 155th.
The street at the bottom of the map is 155th, dividing Audubon Park
from its southern neighbor, Trinity Cemetery.
156th and 157th Streets do not intrude; the Boulevard Lafayette
crosses the northeast corner.  Additional Audubon Park maps.

Manhattan’s Unruly Growth after the American Revolution
Manhattan expanded rapidly in the decades following the American Revolution, often in unruly growth. Alarmed that unplanned, winding streets packed with wooden houses and shops were ripe for the twin perils of fire and epidemic, the Common Council attempted to impose order with a street plan, but lacked authority to confiscate land for new roadways without an owner’s consent. The 1686 Dongan Charter had granted “the Mayor Aldermen and Commonality and their successors forever” the right to “establish, appoint, order and direct the establishing, laying out, ordering amending and repairing of all streets, lanes, alleys, highways, watercourses, ferries and bridges in and throughout the said City of New York and Manhattan Island,” but that right did not include eminent domain, forcing a citizen to sell his property to the government for the public good. Property owners agreed that a street plan was necessary, even desirable – as long as the property in question belonged to someone else. The two sides were at a stalemate.

The Commissioners’ Plan
In 1807, the Common Council applied to the State Legislature for assistance. The Legislature appointed three commissioners, Simeon De Witt, John Rutherford and Governeur Morris, giving them the task of laying out “streets, roads, public squares of such extent and direction as to them shall seem most conducive to public good.” And, to seal the deal, the legislature ruled that the commissioner’s plan would be binding, thereby reducing, if not completely removing, law suits and delays.

The Commissioners hired John Randel, Jr. to survey the island while they discussed the form the city should take: boulevards connecting “circles, ovals, and stars” or the efficient – if monotonous – grid pattern that Philadelphia and Charleston had adopted. While geometric variety was aesthetically pleasing, the grid plan imposed order and fostered real estate development: by carving large, irregular acreage into rectangles, twenty-five or fifty feet wide by one hundred feet deep, buyers and sellers could compare lots and prices more easily. While Randel surveyed, the Commissioners debated: the grid won. (Check out an image of the map and an article about it in the New York Times.)

The northern-most street on the Commissioners’ Map is 155th Street, the southern border (and longest side) of the triangular farm John James Audubon purchased in 1842, the property that evolved into Audubon Park in the early 1850s after Audubon’s death. Why there?

In a written statement accompanying the map, the commissioners acknowledged that some citizens might be surprised “that the whole island has not been laid out as a city,” while others might be amused that the plan “provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China.” By their own admission, the commissioners had ended the grid at 155th Street simply because they believed “it is improbable that (for centuries to come) the grounds north of Harlem Flat will be covered with houses… to have gone further might have furnished materials to the pernicious spirit of speculation.” The Commissioners were, as we know now, several miles and several centuries off the mark.

Defying the Grid
During Audubon Park’s heyday, from the 1850s until the end of the 19th century, villas surrounded by gardens and irregular drives covered the property between 155th Street and 158th Street. Neither 156th nor 157th Streets extended west of Broadway, so the Park was “grid-free”; the only street intruding was the Boulevard Lafayette and that passed diagonally across the northeast corner, not parallel with the grid.

By the late 1890s, the Grinnell siblings, heirs of George Blake and Helen Grinnell, owned more then two-thirds of the land in Audubon Park, but they, like the Audubon family fifty years earlier, were land poor: the Grinnells were far wealthier than the Audubons to be sure, but still with a large part of their wealth tied up in property that was earning very little income. So, at the end of the 1890s, they began planning their exit strategy.

An opportunity arose when the State Legislature decided to extend Riverside Drive from its terminus at Grant’s Tomb to the top of the island where it would connect with the Harlem River Speedway and create a continuous drive around northern Manhattan. Although all of the routes the Legislature considered passed near Audubon Park, the most practical path – straight up the Hudson River – bypassed the Grinnell family’s property. Even so, political connections trumped practicality. Besieged by heavy lobbying from a group of property owners along the proposed route (including Grinnell family representatives), at the end of 1897, the New York State Legislature mandated that the extended Riverside Drive would follow the Hudson River to 155th Street, then cut diagonally across Audubon Park and join the Boulevard Lafayette at 158th Street – the least logical route, but the most profitable for the Grinnell heirs as it outlined the western side of their property.

Although the Commissioners of the Board of Street Openings, the mayor, and other officials, attempted to squelch the plan (deriding it a power grab by a family interested solely in enriching itself), the city did eventually build the extended Riverside Drive along the planned route, which officially opened in late 1911, just as the first residents were moving into the newly-completed Grinnell and Riviera. Immediately drivers complained about the three curves between 155th and 158th Streets, and particularly about the additional blind turn at 158th onto the old Boulevard Lafayette. So, the city began plans for alleviating the problem and in the late 1920s, constructed the outer Riverside Drive along a viaduct following the logical route straight up the river, in the process creating two simultaneous Riverside Drives that have confounded drivers ever since.

This postcard, showing the original Riverside Drive curving away from the Hudson
at 155th Street (looking south), appeared in several versions between 1910 and 1930.
This later version is from postmarked 1925. Audubon’s house, removed in 1932, is on the right.

And Today …
Construction of the outer Riverside Drive improved traffic flow, but the inner roadway had already broken the “tyranny of the grid” in the neighborhood covering what had been Audubon Park, creating a miniature example of the possibilities available if the 1807 commissioners had chosen “circles, ovals, and stars” rather than a utilitarian hatchwork of streets and avenues. The double-wide Riverside Drive running diagonally between 155th and 158th Streets, with its curves east and west, creates an optical illusion that can be oddly, even pleasantly, disorienting. Are the buildings on the river side of the drive on the north or the west? (Actually, they’re more the former than the latter.) Is Riverside Drive oriented north, south, east, or west? (All four, depending on where a person stands.) Why is the intersection of Riverside Drive and 158th Street a five-point intersection – one of the “stars” the Commissioners rejected? (Because it also includes the severed block of Boulevard Lafayette, renamed Audubon Place in 1900 and later, Edward M. Morgan Place, the name it carries today.)

Non-comformity to the grid is a distinquishing feature of the Audubon Park Historic District, lending it spacial interest and charm, a charm architects accentuated in the designs of 765 Riverside Drive with its curved façade, the Riviera with its irregular front mirroring the Drive between 156th and 157th Streets, and the Grinnell, an apartment house occupying its own triangular block. As a whole, New York City may well have benefited from the imposition of the grid, real estate development moving gradually north in an orderly fashion, citizens able to orient themselves and find addresses with relative ease, but on the two hundredth anniversary of the day the Street Commissioners imposed that sensible Cartesian order, one neighborhood can rejoice in its non-conformity.

This 1928 photo, looking north, shows the original Riverside Drive branching
northeast at 155th and the “new” Riverside Drive running across a viaduct
along the Hudson River, connecting with the inner Drive at 165th Street.
Riverside Drive as it curves between 155th Street and 156th Street.
(Charles and Murray Gordon Memorial Park on the left; Riviera on the right.)

The five-point intersection of Riverside Drive, 158th Street and Edward Morgan Place,
the remaining one block of the Boulevard Lafayette.