The Streets of New York in 1766

New York in 1766-67.

A 1770 map of New York City, including the waterfronts of Brooklyn and New Jersey, turned up at the Brooklyn Historical Society.  The Times has the story, with a viewable scan of the restoration.

Given that they’re pushing the visuals, the zoom could be a lot better.  But even at this resolution, one can easily make out that the street pattern below Chambers Street remains virtually unchanged after more than 240 years; and that much of the grid of the Lower East Side was already laid out before 1776.  Note also the historic route of Fulton Street in Brooklyn, connecting Fulton Ferry (immortalized by Whitman) with today’s east-west Fulton Street via the current north-south route of Cadman Plaza West.

Here’s a Google pinpoint map of the same area, today.  Update: here‘s a much higher resolution scan of Ratzer’s depiction of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn Heights.

Another update: while the article tells us that the map dates to 1770, the legend indicates that the land was actually surveyed in 1766-67, placing its snapshot about a decade before the Declaration of Independence– and in the same year as the first classes at Rutgers.

The Balance of Organic Urbanism

Houses on Steiner Street, San Francisco. Lot sizes are the same.

What exactly made pre-Euclid development in American towns and cities more aesthetically rich than so many of the sterile developments of today?  I think one of the most significant factors was the inherent balance between uniformity and individuality that characterized the legal framework of traditional town planning: the paradox of organic urbanism.

Prior to use zoning, certain legal requirements enforced a broad uniformity among neighboring buildings that created aesthetic harmony: lot sizes tended to be uniform as subdivisions of paper streets were filled in; fire codes limited building heights to the reaches of available equipment; air and light requirements limited density.  Presumably, the codified requirements of the 19th and early 20th centuries evolved from the common law traditions and practical constraints of town-building that had controlled development in earlier times.  But while these rules defined the corners of the working canvas, the work, so circumscribed, was as varied as those who built it.  Uses were unregulated, except to exclude nuisances; architectural styles were driven by the tastes of individual builders and buyers; attachment, detachment, and maximization of coverage were driven largely by market conditions.

Other factors contribute to the abiding appeal of older neighborhoods: the availability of natural materials like clapboard, limestone, and slate, at the times of their construction; the rich detailing of a design that was intended for pedestrians rather than passengers in speeding cars; private law controls, within subdivisions, that ran with the land; generally, the relics of another time.  Variety also accrues over time, as identical buildings are modified in different ways.  But I suspect the most significant factor in the richness and authenticity of older towns and city neighborhoods lies in the inherent balance of the legal framework that shaped them: one that regularized the many canvases of a neighborhood, then stepped back and allowed them to each be developed according to a wide variety of individual tastes and specific economic demands.

Today, many urban redevelopment projects seek to recover the richness and variety of traditional neighborhoods, but their planners often fail because they attempt to exercise complete control over an entire, unitary project.  Often, it might be the case that defining the scale of development, the quality of building materials, and a set of specific exclusions would be enough.  Beyond these basics, planners could exercise a light hand, and let the marketplace of individual styles and economic necessities fill in the details, resulting in a variety that more thoroughly expresses the character of  the community.

The Last Detached Victorians of New York Proper?

Houses on Woodycrest Avenue, New York City. Source: Bing Maps.

I suspect they are.  They’re a collection of about a dozen houses along Woodycrest Avenue, where it’s crossed by 164th Street, in the South Bronx.

Some NYC history: before 1898, Brooklyn was a separate city, and Queens was a collection of separate municipalities.  Staten Island was (and remains) a separate universe.  But the Bronx was the organic extension of New York City’s development beyond Manhattan: along with Manhattan, it comprised the City of New York before the greater, five-borough city was legally formed.  Evidence of the close relationship between Manhattan and the Bronx is still visible in the continuity of street and house numbering from one to the other; the continuities of Broadway, Park Avenue, and Third Avenue between the boroughs; and the fact that no ZIP code in the Bronx ends in the same two digits as any in Manhattan, due to the borough’s historic coverage by the “New York, New York” post office.

1896 Map Showing NYC lands beyond Manhattan.

So, onto detached Victorian houses.  There was probably a time when New York City proper had a large stock of detached Victorians, like those that remain in San Francisco or Boston, or the ones in the above picture.  (Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, of course, all have their fair shares of such houses.)  But Manhattan and the Bronx grew faster in the late 19th and early 20th centuries than any of those places, and most of their formerly low-density sections were completely built up with tenements and apartment buildings by the 1920s– long before historic preservation was an urban planning concept.  As a result, the stock of detached Victorians in New York City proper is almost totally erased.

Manhattan– the heart of the city proper– has barely any detached houses remaining, at all.  (There are literally three or four on Park Terrace West and a couple on Seaman Avenue, in Inwood, and a few in Marble Hill.)  The Bronx, on the other hand, has probably tens of thousands of detached houses, but most of them are simple wood-frames, Tudors, colonials, or brick duplexes that post-date the Victorian period.  In light of the historical context, this bunch of spacious homes with turrets, gables, and wraparound porches on Woodycrest Avenue is unique.  And it may actually be the last remnant of an architectural period in the city’s history that has all but disappeared.

Will research more, and update.

Update: there is a handful of smaller detached (possible) Victorians, much less elaborate, in Marble Hill.