The Manhattan Project: The Legacy of John Randel Jr.

Animals and trash once ruled New York City. A new book tells the story of the man who tamed Manhattan with its famous grid. By Kevin Canfield.

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Manhattan’s streets and avenues form what is probably the world’s most famous grid. For 200 years this layout has been loved and derided. Its critics have included Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Edith Wharton, who crankily called the city of her birth a “cramped horizontal gridiron of a town.”

But it’s not hard to understand what policymakers were thinking when they opted for such uniformity of design. In 1790 about 30,000 people lived in New York City. That figure would quadruple by 1820. Animals had the run of the place. Trash was strewn about. Primitive treatment methods failed to contain sewage. Disease was rampant. Firefighting was a hopeless endeavor. City and state legislators believed a systematically planned and implemented street grid would impose order amid the bustle and grime, and in 1807 they decided to act.

John Randel Jr., the surveyor chosen for the job, was all of 20 years old. Though he’d spent a fair amount of time in the field—he was a protégé of Simeon De Witt, the longtime surveyor general of the state of New York—you have to wonder if he knew what he was getting himself into. Randel would grind away at his assignment for the next 12 years.

In gracefully efficient prose, Marguerite Holloway, who heads Columbia University’s Science and Environmental Journalism program, gives the reader a vivid sense of the challenges facing Randel, the social context that informed his epic undertaking, and the will and ingenuity that he brought to the task in The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor.

Unfortunately, the book’s title is a bit misleading. In fact, only about half of The Measure of Manhattan deals with Randel’s New York City work. The rest focuses on two related subjects: Randel’s later, lesser-known role in planning railroads and waterways, and 21st-century geographers and surveyors who’ve followed in his footsteps. Neither, alas, is as interesting as Randel’s work in Manhattan.

Randel had a head for numbers, so it’s not surprising that he became a surveyor. Around the turn of the 19th century, the nation was in the midst of a surveying boom. “The American boom resembled England’s during the mid-sixteenth century, when the crown seized Catholic Church holdings,” Holloway explains in a fascinating aside. “The church lands needed to be circumscribed and described before they could be sold.”

A previous surveyor, Casimir Goerck, completed a so-called Map of Common Lands in 1796 that established a preliminary street grid and set down the footprint for several Manhattan avenues. Randel took the baton from Goerck and got to work in 1808. Armed with a transit telescope, a compass, and several new tools he invented along the way, he “hiked the island’s hills, waded through its creeks and marshes, and let the tide rise up to his shoulders,” Holloway writes. In the process he “established a trellis for New York City to climb as it grew north from what was then North Street, now Houston Street, to 155th Street.”

Randel encountered more than his share of obstacles. Angry property owners chased him away. Vandals dug up pegs and other markers he’d driven into the soil. His assistants drank too much. He had trouble persuading the city to reimburse him for money he’d spent on the job. And around 1817, Randel, who seemed to be having liver trouble, received large doses of mercury as a laxative. Holloway believes this might have had lasting effects: “Mercury can also cause rapid mood swings and trigger quarrelsomeness, two behaviors that do seem to increasingly characterize Randel from his thirties on.”

But nothing seems to have sapped his resourcefulness. Randel came to believe that the existing tools of the trade were lacking, and over the years he designed seven new devices that he used while planning the street grid. These enabled him to accurately measure great distances, map out 90-degree angles, and, Holloway explains, establish a highly precise horizontal level. “Basically,” an authority on historical surveying tools tells Holloway, Randel “was a mechanical genius.”

Lop off the endnotes and bibliography, and The Measure of Manhattan is barely 300 pages. Even at this length, it’s too long; Holloway’s chapters about her subject’s professional descendants read like bloated newspaper articles. But her exploration of Randel’s remarkable Manhattan project is another thing entirely, an enlightening ode to a man who made sense of a budding metropolis.