Tag Archives: Manhattan

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.

Just How Big Is New York City?

Map courtesy of http://www.new-york-hotels-offer.com/map.html

New York City (now) consists of five boroughs. I qualify this with “now” because, as recently as one hundred and twenty-five years ago, when New York City consisted of simply Manhattan, and the other four boroughs were cities unto themselves.


In order to get some semblance of how frickin’ big New York City with the five boroughs, if we were to separate them out, four out of the five boroughs would still make the top ten most populous cities in America. From the 2010 census:

  1. Los Angeles, California – 3,792,621
  2. Chicago, Illinois - 2,695,598
  3. Brooklyn, New York - 2,504,700
  4. Queens, New York - 2,230,722
  5. Houston, Texas – 2,099,451
  6. Manhattan, New York – 1,585,873
  7. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania - 1,526,006
  8. Phoenix, Arizona – 1,445,632
  9. The Bronx, New York  - 1,385,108
  10. San Antonio, Texas - 1,327,407
Staten Island, with it’s population at 468,730, would sit somewhere between 35th and 40th place, roughly the size of Sacramento.


New York City is big. Really big.  At 8,175,133, it’s over twice the size of Los Angeles’s population. Yet, from a square mileage perspective, it’s 75% of Los Angeles’s size.


I can remember my first time on Manhattan, and looking up and down the Avenue, and my brain going “pop”, because it was unable to grasp the evidence directly in front of it.  If you’ve never been to Manhattan , it’s impossible to imagine what 1.5 million people sitting on  22.7 square miles looks like.  If you have been, many of you will understand the awe that this borough presents to you inspires.


Consider this – Philadelphia, a city roughly the size of Manhattan,   fits roughly the same number of people in 134.1 square miles, roughly six times the land mass of the Island of Manhattan.


I realize that we throw around the word “awesome” like some men throw around singles at a strip club. It is one of the more unfortunate idioms of this current era.  So believe me when I say this: Manhattan is awesome, in that it can and does inspire awe.

Manhattan and the Legend of its $24 Sale

Anyone who does any amount of reading of history will start to get a sixth sense about famous stories and legends that deal with historical moment. This feeling is little more than a simple distrust of any common historical anecdote that’s easily understood by a five year.  The reason for this distrust is remarkable simple – life is never simple, and any event is often far more nuanced than a one sentence retelling of the event.  Europeans did not think that the world was flat at the time of Columbus;  Paul Revere didn’t shout out “The British are coming!”; and Peter Minuit didn’t buy Manhattan for $24.

For one, a member of the Dutch West India Company, Pieter Janszoon Schagen, mentions in a  report to the States-General in November 1626 that he heard from someone who heard from someone else about the sale price of 60 guilders. Schagen stated:

[T]hey have bought the island Manhattes from the wildmen for the value of sixty guilders.

This difference of currency alone should be enough to raise enough doubt in the $24 story.  But the deal itself is worth looking into deeper than the exchange of monies.

First, there’s no distinct record on which natives Minuit dealt with in the first place. While both the Lenape (who resided on Manhattan) and the Canarsee (who resided on Long Island) are likely probabilities, there’s no evidence to state that Minuit even dealt with the correct tribe.

But, assuming he did deal with the Lenape, they were receiving more than the 60 guilders. The technological superiority of the Dutch would have been obvious to the tribe, and making friends with them would have been advantageous. Nothing keeps long standing rivals out of your neighborhood than having new friends with louder, quicker, and more deadly weaponry.

Additionally, having sudden access to new and/or improved technologies that the Dutch also added to the deal (such as pick axes, hoes, and awls) could have been seen as tremendously beneficial.

Still, all of this is mostly circumstantial speculation because whomever the Dutch dealt with left no record of the event.  Presuming that the Dutch weren’t out to screw the aboriginal population (always a sketchy presumption when talking about the Dutch of that era – see any most recounting of the exploits for Jan Pieterszoon Coen if you doubt my position), then we can also presume that the local population saw benefit to the deal.  That there’s no record of an immediate uprising (but those would come) of the natives soon after the deal points to a relatively smooth acceptance of the deal.

So where did the $24 number come from? Michelle Nevius and James Nevius, in their book Inside the Apple: A Streetwise History of New York City, note the following:


In 1844, New York State historian John Romeyn Brodhead announced to the New-York Historical the discovery of (the Pieter Schagen) letter and it was Brodhead who converted the 60 guilders into $24.

The $24 number has stuck ever since,  because it’s easy to remember, and paints the Lenape or Canarsee as to be so unsophisticated that they were easily swindled. This was a view of the Native Americans that was held by many of those with European heritage, and the statement by Brodhed soon became legend.