Of Grids and Canals: The Legacy of DeWitt Clinton

When it comes to cities, it’s rare to be able to look back in history and point to one person and go “This is the guy! This is the man that made <insert city name here> the city that it is today!” Usually a city is shaped and/or remembered by thousands of events, none of which even come close to falling under the heading of “city planning”.

DeWitt Clinton, who lived between  1769 and 1828, is a name that needs to be remembered in the history of New York. For, at first as Mayor of New York City, and then later as Governor of the state of New York, he initiated two different projects that would both help shape the path of New York City for generations after he left his mortal coil. He is one of but a handful of people to which we can point and go “This is the guy!”

Item #1: The Grid

Geography is destiny, and by the early 1800′s, people living in New York City lived mostly south of Greenwhich Village, leaving close to five miles of the island of Manhattan as unplanned territory.  Yet, with immigrants from Ireland arriving, and the city growing at a torrid pace, it didn’t take a genius to see that it was possible that entire island may one day be filled with residents of New York City. The cities leaders new, even back then, that it would be good to have a plan to which the city could be built around.

As Mayor of New York, Clinton had both influence and power, and in 1807 he appointed the commission that would literally shape the streets and avenues of New York City.  The result? The Commissioner’s Plan of 1811, a work of remarkable foresight and planning that shaped Manhattan’s growth into the twentieth century.  It was this map that laid out the grid of Manhattan Island, what with the Avenues running north-south and the streets running east-west. It was this map that changed civic engineering in America, from the chaos of the Boston and Philadelphia to the regimented shaping of cities yet to come.

And while the resulting map has it’s own history, it should be noted that DeWitt Clinton had his hands in the appointment of those who helped create the grid.


Item #2: The Erie Canal

The problem was simple. It cost less to ship items to England than it did to ship them to areas of the rapidly growing midwest. The Appalachian Mountain Range made transportation between the east coast and Pittsburgh and beyond prohibitively expensive.  The solution, as detailed by DeWitt Clinton was far more complex – a canal that would run from Lake Erie and Buffalo, New York to the Hudson River and New York City.

Yes, it cost $7 million dollars to create by the time it was finished in 1825 (Roughly $133,136,983 in today’s money) and Clinton’s political opponents used the cost to paint him as loser. But history has demonstrated the brilliance of the plan, for the Canal accomplished three distinct achievements:

  1. Shipping costs dropped dramatically, to the tune of 95% according to some.
  2. Now that shipping to back and forth to the east coast was cheap, this fueled the economic opportunities to many towns and cities of the Midwest. This, in turn, fueled the population growth of many cities, including the likes of Buffalo, Erie, Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit, where opportunity now was available to those willing to take advantage of the canal.
  3. New York City became the preeminent port city of America, quickly outdistancing the likes of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston, and soon shipping more annual tonnage than these three cities combined.

Item 3 is the reason that New York became as large as it did, for it was the shipping business that made New York’s name internationally in the nineteenth century, and made it the primary choice of destination for all immigrants into the United States in the early-to-mid 1800′s.

And thanks to the commissioner’s plan of 1811, the city already had a plan to deal with the increasing population, making it better able to accept the incoming immigration wave than most any other city in America.

The fact that DeWitt Clinton had a role in both of these events, to me, demonstrates the genius of the man, and illustrates how well government can work when the right person or people are in the job. For without DeWitt Clinton, New York  would be a very different city today.

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