The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor

  • Marguerite Holloway
  • W.W. Norton & Company
  • 384 pp.
  • Reviewed by Ellen Sands
  • March 29, 2013

The Measure of Manhattan is the biography of John Randel, Jr., the man who plotted Manhattan’s city grid.

Add reading a map to the list of vanishing skills-sets your children may never learn. The ability to scan and understand a depiction of the known world — or some portion thereof — seems to be of declining interest and value. So is it appropriate or ironic that there has been an uptick in publications and exhibits of mapping? There was The Mannahatta Project in the first decade of this century, the ecological re-creation of Manhattan Island as it likely was before European settlement. That in turn spawned The Welikia Project, the same concept extended to the other boroughs of New York, with its evocative and lush video depictions of both the geography and the wildlife that predated Western settlement. Beyond the Big Apple, William C. Wooldridge’s Mapping Virginia: From the Age of Exploration to the Civil War documents the settlement of Virginia through maps, exploring both the political and geographic evolution of the state. In a more speculative vein, On the Mapby Simon Garfield offers a look at the creative mapping possibilities provided by the Internet and global positioning. (See the Independent’s review here.) That book is actually a catalog accompanying an exhibit, but the ideas and images are so provocative that Garfield has successfully been making the rounds of talk radio.

Marguerite Holloway’s The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel, Jr., Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor is another contribution to the library chronicling the development of Manhattan through mapping. Holloway begins with a charming prologue, describing a rock outcropping in Riverside Park that she visited as a child, affectionately named “Big Rock,” to which she brings her own children. These visits through the generations sparked her curiosity on the history of the island and how it evolved, prompting the book. The effort is part biography, part Manhattan history lesson and part an attempt to weave Randel into the thread extending from 1609, when Hendrick Hudson first sailed into the area, to Garfield’s current notion that because of GPS we now see ourselves as the center, in fact the generators, of our own maps.

John Randel, Jr. was born in Albany. He came from a large and well-connected family which enabled him to find training and work as a surveyor under the tutelage of Simeon DeWitt, another prominent resident of the city and surveyor general of the State of New York. In 1807 Randel was hired by the New York commissioners to lay out the city’s newly adopted street grid and to create a map thereof, known as the Commissioners’ Plan, released in 1811. While parts of lower Manhattan had been settled and would be left intact, everything above North (now Houston) Street was to be brought into compliance with the new grid. The standard block would be 60 feet wide by 200 feet long, as proposed by an earlier surveyor, with the shorter streets running east to west and terminating at the rivers, keeping the riverfronts open and encouraging cross breezes. The longer avenues would run north to south, at a slight easterly skew to follow the skew of the island itself.

Randel was hired to lay out the grid and to install monument stones so that the future streets could be graded and constructed. This two-dimensional grid, however, was to be imposed in the third dimension as well, entailing a leveling of topography. Hills were scraped low while bogs and streams were backfilled and raised. It was standard, although not universal, urban planning practice at the time. Holloway points to Oneida Castle, where Randel worked under DeWitt, as an example where the topography not only accommodated the layout of the streets but in fact reinforced the hierarchy of the planning. Holloway quotes from Randel’s notes on the topic: “In laying out the Public Places which you have directed to be at the Meeting house, I thought as this spot was the highest it would be best for Public Buildings, and the gently descending grounds out of it would be best for a Public Place ...”

No such gentleness was afforded to Manhattan. Randel was charged with running the new streets through existing landholdings — in some cases right through the fields and even homes of settlers who most certainly did not appreciate the new order being superimposed on their property. He and his men were routinely threatened and run off, an unpleasant job hazard. Reflecting on the changing attitude in planning, Holloway notes that within years of the Commissioners’ Plan being implemented, there was a backlash against its “topographical insensitivity,” voiced by the likes of Clement Clark Moore, Walt Whitman and Edgar Allen Poe. Holloway uses the criticism as a springboard to discuss surveying history. She describes an ongoing New York surveying project by J.R. Lemuel Morrison, briefly discusses the Mannahatta Project and gives a fairly succinct explanation of how the global positioning system works, and how points on the land change over time. 

Holloway relates Randel’s other surveying endeavors — a portion of the Erie Canal, several small cities and, perhaps most famously, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, all of which were mixed successes as presented by Holloway. Randel, it seems, was a contentious man. Forever tinkering with surveying equipment, he invented and was hugely protective of the instruments he fabricated to conduct his surveying. He was litigious and quick to bring suit when he felt impinged upon, an occurrence in almost every endeavor he undertook. While vindicated by the courts in his case against the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal, restitution was slow to come and Randel died with little wealth.

The Manhattan grid, it would seem, has been a source of admiration and contempt through time, reviled as too rigid on the one hand, yet praised for the order it provides — not, it would seem, unlike the man charged with fixing it to the earth. 

Ellen Sands serves as the Permitting and Code Enforcement Coordinator for Chevy Chase Village. Trained as an architect, she has written for Architectural Record and The Washington Times, and has taught design at the University of Maryland.

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