New York City: The Greatest Grid


of an Exhibition

by Sehr Karim-Jaffer

Published on April 23, 2012, Modified on July 25, 2012

  • Description:

    Each time I return to New York City, I get a jolt of excitement. The familiar street signs, row after row of intimate storefront packed streets, brightly lit avenues framed by towering buildings that go on for miles, familiar landmarks everywhere you turn, blocks punctuated with cozy restaurants and bars, sunsets bursting through slivers of sky between skyscrapers, and public art and greenery everywhere you look. So much chaos, yet so much order, it must be magic!

    Or could it be something else? With the recent opening of a new exhibition, New York City: The Greatest Grid, New Yorkers can learn about precisely how New York City has gained its magical aura over the years.

    Right off the bat, the place-based exhibition has a lot going for it. It is located in the Museum of New York City, on 104th street and Fifth Avenue. Whether you are a tourist or a local, the exhibition is relevant to you. Each visitor brings prior knowledge to the experience while the thoughtful title of the exhibition serves to inspire personal connection. One tourist I bumped into on the train explained the exhibition caught his eye because of its name. He explained he was visiting New York City because it was the “greatest” city in the world, a claim frequently made by numerous native New Yorkers I know.

    I pondered over the title of the exhibition as I made my way to the museum. I was reminded of the greatness of the city at every turn. It was a beautiful spring day with just enough breeze and a whole lot of sunshine. I confidently jumped on the four train at Union Square and got off at 103rd Street and then turned left down 104th street. I noted the ease with which I travelled 90 blocks to a location in New York City I had never visited before. I turned the corner at Fifth Avenue to arrive at a neo-classical structure with a grand staircase and a landing framed by marble banisters on either side.

    The medium-sized museum was both warm and welcoming. The foyer had glass doors on all sides. The confusion on my face caught the attention of a nearby security guard who directed me towards the museum entrance. I approached the front desk, collected a button, and was directed to the end of the desk for a museum map. Two volunteers kindly pointed me to the exhibition.

    The exhibition entrance was right off the circular lobby. Before going in I read the introductory wall text displayed on a slightly curved wall. The concave wall, though subtle, invited my attention, and physically drew me in. Under the title was an illustration of a birds-eye-view of Manhattan; a simple black outline of the island with intersecting lines representing the New York City grid filled in with bright colors. The eye-catching visual convinced me to read the nearby paragraphs of text from which I registered the salient points of the exhibition:

    1.The exhibition celebrated the bicentennial or two hundred year anniversary of the New York grid

    2.The New York city grid that goes up to 155th street was established in the Commissioners Plan of 1811

    3.During these 200 years the population of New York City grew from
    100,000 to 1.6 million

    4.There were negative implications for earlier colonial settlers

    5.The grid became a reality due to courage of certain visionaries who imagined the impossible

    Upon entering through the heavy glass doors of the exhibition, I was immediately drawn to a cement grey freestanding panel in front of me that was playing a black and white video montage of New Yorkers giving their cross streets, “135 and 5th, 2nd and 2nd, 68th and 3rd, 2nd and 10th, 24th and 10th, 23rd and 11th,” against the backdrop of New York City cross-streets. The variety in accents, gender and race captured the diversity of New York City that I was familiar with. The poignancy of the film made me smile and seek more information. The accompanying label stated that the 2:30 minute video made by Neil Goldberg is called 12×155, the dimension of Manhattan that is 12 avenues by 155 streets. This installation immediately called on my prior knowledge, and subtly introduced new information. I was really enjoying myself.

    After a few minutes of standing in front of the video, a heading on the top right corner of the free-standing panel, The Street Numbering System, caught my eye. The color of the heading text matched a rectangular patch on a medium sized text panel below that elaborated on the governing philosophical principles of New York’s grid system. I briefly remember it saying something about Descartes, rationality, logic, order and the grid being informed by the Cartesian geometric system.

    My eyes travelled down the panel and followed the cement grey paint that continued on to the floor of the exhibition that created a grid of pathways throughout the exhibition. This helped reinforce the big idea of the exhibition and added an element of fun to the visitor experience. I thought this was a terrific idea for young visitors to the exhibition, especially kinesthetic learners. I continued to follow the grey path to my next stop but eventually realized it was an aesthetic feature rather than an interactive one. The path began and ended in odd places and disappeared at times.

    My next stop was a large 1782 drawing of Manhattan that was displayed on a wall panel by the entrance to the exhibition. I learned that the pink block on its southern tip represented the town of New York City pre-1811 grid. I appreciate the exhibition designer’s choice to juxtapose the map with the video montage. The literal gap between pre and post-grid Manhattan spurred my curiosity about how the grid came to be. Who influenced it? Who developed it? What were the motivations for and implications of such an ambitious plan?

    In search of my answers to these questions, I began to move deeper into the exhibition. As I looked around to get my bearings I saw something completely unexpected — myself. I was surprised to be looking into a floor to ceiling mirror that was the width of the numerous freestanding panels in the space. The mirror reflected the visitors in the exhibition walking up and down the hallway. There was a mirror at the other end of the exhibition as well. An image of a sea of pedestrians on Fifth Avenue during lunchtime flashed through my mind.

    The exhibition designer successfully simulated the Manhattan grid system by including a parallel mirrored hallway that travelled the length of the rectangular exhibition space. Walking along the simulated avenues, the visitor passes between several rows of clearly labeled, freestanding panels. Each row has approximately three panels, separated by the parallel hallways, or avenues of the exhibition.

    I was extremely impressed with the simultaneously chronological and geographical layout of the exhibition. Visitors travel into the exhibition by moving south to north and east to west. This progression also captures the evolution from pre-grid Manhattan to Modern Manhattan.

    I found the clearly labeled color-coded headings on the top right or top left corners of the freestanding panels to help visualize this progression. These headings also supported the visitors freedom to deep-dive into a topic of their choice.

    For example, the panels on the east side of the exhibition presented the following sub-themes: Selling lots, Opening Streets, The Development of the Eastside, The Public Realm: Small parks, New Avenue and Counterpoint Broadway.

    Sub-themes covered on the west side of the exhibition: Before the Grid, Improving the West Side, The Public Realm, Central Park, Modern Reform, Moving On The Grid. Some headings were clearer than others, but each section included an interesting combination of maps, drawings, and photographs that successfully captured the essence of each sub-theme.

    Curious about the motivations for the Manhattan grid, I decided to begin my journey at the southwest corner of the rectangular space at a section titled, Precedents & Context. The earlier introductory experience infused me with enough intrinsic motivation to deep-dive into this section. I proceeded to read the brief and well-written text panel in front of me, which explained the impetus for the rectangular, blocked, subdivided, logical, repetitive, uncomplicated grid of Manhattan. It also added interesting comparative details such as, while “Washington DC, (was)…a symbolic expression of power, New York consciously chose another way.” The text directly referenced the primary sources displayed in this section, including maps of Peru in 1748 that followed the Law of Indies that inspired grid iron planning, a 1758 grid-plan proposed for the rebuilding of London after the 1666 fire, which the British government rejected because it disregarded existing property divisions, a grid plan for Scotland, Philly, Savannah, and Albany. The exhibition designer’s choice to juxtapose these maps helped articulate the motivations for the New York City grid. I particularly appreciated that the label text exclusively referred to the objects on display, reinforcing the dialogic relationship between object and text throughout the exhibition.

    Satisfied with the information I obtained, I looked over at the southeast corner of the exhibition. Exhausted from looking at detailed maps I was relieved to set my eyes on a three-dimensional vertical, cuboid, marble structure carved with the number 26. A supporting label explained this was a milestone and showed a photograph of this milestone in situ. I was excited to learn that such milestones were used by surveyors to mark the new grid of Manhattan.

    Next to the milestone was a glass case with four functional objects. The label text listed all four of the objects and their functions but not in the order in which the objects were displayed, forcing the viewer to match the label text to the object based on the information provided. I enjoyed the activity of matching the described functions to the physical attributes of these surveyor tools, especially the Gunter chain that was used to measure distance, the Geolithic Transit that helped surveyors locate true north, and a compass that belonged to George Washington who began his career as a surveyor at 16 years old. An adjacent case showcased field survey books with markings and calculations of famous surveyors. I noted that children would particularly enjoy this portion of the exhibition but quickly realized that the elevated display cases would be completely inaccessible for young visitors who were shorter than four feet tall.

    I decided to venture down the mirrored hallway or avenue on the east side of the exhibition. I noticed that the exhibition designer also used wall text of pertinent quotes throughout the space, a useful trope for creating some variation for visitors who prefer to graze rather than deep-dive. For example, a quote by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, states “The Grid defines a new balance between control and de-control in which the city can at the same time ordered and fluid, a metropolis of rigid chaos.” Another quote is from The Commissioners of 1811 who stated, “A city is to be composed principally of the habitations of men…strait-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in.”

    On a wall panel with the heading, Opening Streets, I was drawn to a black and white photograph of Edgar Allen Poe’s home situated on a rocky plain. The label displayed below the photograph was clear and legible. It stated that this was his farmhouse on 84th and Broadway in the 1840s and included a quote from Poe, in which he described the destruction of Manhattan’s old landscape: “these magnificent places are doomed. The spirit of Improvement has withered them with its acrid breath. Streets are already ‘mapped’ through them, and they are no longer suburban residences, but ‘town-lots.’” I was captivated by this statement and wondered why such a powerful quote. It aptly captured the controversy of the redistribution of private land and its impact on a New Yorker. I wondered why it was embedded deep within label text and not more prominently displayed. The omission of the first-person voice of the New York City dweller in the exhibition became increasingly pronounced as I moved on.

    Running out of steam and in search for something more interactive, I approached two blank screens mounted on a nearby panel, with a tiny label that invited visitors to, “Touch Screen: Double tap to zoom and Drag to pan.” Upon tapping the screen, nothing happened. I played around with the dragging function to eventually reveal a map; I zoomed in and out but did not quite understand what I was supposed to do. I read the accompanying label text that explained this was an important map of some sort but I still was at a loss for why it was being displayed in this way. I moved away and observed a young couple approach the screens and discuss being puzzled by this portion of the exhibition. They eventually gave up and walked away.

    As I made it to the northern end of the exhibition, I glazed over the various exhibition components. I was wall-text and mapped out. Tired and ready to go home, I began walking down the mirrored hallway from north to south, where the exit was, but I suddenly felt lost. I noticed that the color-coded headings were not included on the reverse side of the wall panels that ran along the mirrored hallways, suggesting that the exhibition had only been designed to be experienced in one direction, from south to north and not north to south. Was this a deliberate omission by the exhibition designer?

    One visitor shared that he enjoyed the exhibition’s “imaginative layout.” Another visitor shared that she thought the “layout is really cool.” There is undoubtedly a lot of rich content included in this exhibition; however, I would argue that the layout of the space overwhelms the experience. Fewer sub-themes, and thus fewer rows of wall-panels would allow for a more focused visitor experience.

    The exhibition certainly simulated the physical space in which New Yorkers have lived over the last two hundred years but it kept their voices muffled. By not including interactive components, the exhibition also kept the voices of contemporary New Yorkers out. Perhaps the exhibition designer could have had visitors who live or work in New York City record or find their cross streets on a contemporary map super-imposed on a pre-1811 map of Manhattan. Another suggestion would be to have Five-Minute-Focus docents who are native New Yorkers engage visitors during the exhibition.

    It is important to point out that this exhibition is particularly inaccessible to children, which is a shame, especially for first and second graders in New York whose curriculums typically focus on mapping and the topic of New York City.

    This exhibition also make the case that technology is not an end but a means to help exhibitions meet their overarching goals. The failed touch panel exhibit makes a strong case for exhibition designers to carefully evaluate their motivations for including technology in their designs.

    Lastly, research shows that to ensure that an exhibition experience stays with the visitor for a long time, it is vital for the visitor to be engaged in multiple ways. Although creatively executed I found the exhibition to be rather didactic. The exhibition talked at me and provided me with little space to share, process or reconcile new information with my previous knowledge. This was a lost opportunity for both the visitor and the exhibition designer. One of the most effective ways for this be avoided— especially for an exhibition on New York City’s grid—a subject that directly affects the New York City community—would have been to develop a participatory exhibition, one that was highly interactive and dialogic (two-way), not just between object and label text, but between object/idea and visitor. Something as simple as a board for visitor comments or personal connections would have filled this gap in the exhibition.

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