Daily Plant Masthead

Volume XIX, Number 4217
Thursday, Oct 21, 2004


<i>Bird's eye view, Columbus Circle,  April 12, 1935. <br>Alajos L Schuszler, New York City Parks Photo Archive</i>
Bird's eye view, Columbus Circle, April 12, 1935.
Alajos L Schuszler, New York City Parks Photo Archive

This article is the second in a series on the importance of Broadway in the history of New York City’s parks. We left off at the turn of the 19th century when New York City, which at that time was only Manhattan, made decisions that resulted in its becoming the greatest city in the nation: the construction of the Erie Canal and the laying of the Manhattan street grid. The State Legislature appointed a commission in 1807 to lead the mapping efforts. The commissioners were Simeon DeWitt, John Rutherford, and Gouverneur Morris. Not coincidentally, Morris and DeWitt were also on the Erie Canal Commission, and they approached the grid project just like the Erie Canal, a pragmatic, technical advancement that needed to adhere to strict engineering standards. The Commission hired a young surveyor, John Randel Jr., to carefully map out Manhattan’s then 11,400 acres. Randel took into consideration the topography of the island as well as its streams and ponds. His sensitivity towards nature would prove superfluous, when he found out he had to impose a strict grid of avenues 100 feet-wide, bisected every 200 feet by 60-foot-wide streets, over the island’s rustic landscape.

In 1811 the Commissioner’s Plan went on display in the nearly completed City Hall. Then, as now, the grid began on the north side of Houston Street, which at that time was about as far north as anyone had settled in Manhattan. For those people who did live in the newly mapped area, the City’s Common Council (an early predecessor of today’s City Council) ruled that they would have to give up the portions of their property that would become new streets and avenues. Likewise the Council eliminated all streets that had already been laid out in the area that the new grid encompassed.

Gone were historic Bloomingdale Road, which Washington used during the battle of New York; the Boston Post Road, which served as a major communication link; and most shocking of all, Broadway. They were all cut out in favor of perfect rectangles, but even the calculating commissioners put several public squares in the plan. "The Parade" marked the site of what would have been Manhattan’s biggest park, a place for military marching displays. That area measured 240 acres and ran from Third to Seventh Avenues between 23rd and 34th Streets.

Historic Broadway, which sprung from the historic settlement at the Battery, had already become too deep-rooted into the rest of the island’s geography to remove it. In the long run Manhattan was greatly benefited by this decision, because without Broadway to slice up the cold square lines, New York would have been without so much of its unique charm. The grid was designed to eliminate the confusion of Lower Manhattan, but when one takes a closer look at the streets above Houston Street, all the fun places (i.e. parks) spring up along Broadway. Just as the colonial settlers came together next to the old fort, because of the concentration of people, Broadway’s route through the grid made new places of concentration, and those places became parks.

The intersection of 14th Street and Fourth Avenue would be like any other, but adding Broadway into the mix made it a place of heightened activity: today’s Union Square Park. Broadway travels northwest through the grid and comes to Fifth Avenue and 23rd Street, today’s Madison Square Park, which was included as The Parade in the original plan, but was significantly pared down; the part that survived is the part closest to Broadway. When Broadway swings to Sixth Avenue at 34th Street, we get Herald Square. Eight blocks later Broadway meets Seventh Avenue at a very acute angle and quickly crosses again at 47th, this site is commonly called the Crossroads of the World, Times Square and Duffy Square.

Broadway then leisurely sweeps west but changes direction again at 59th Street. This is where it rounds Columbus Circle, which forms the southwest corner of Central Park. The more you look the more you see the impact of Broadway: the long and winding road.

Written by John Mattera
Parks & Recreation Librarian


"I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers."

Langston Hughes

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