New York Squared: Marguerite Holloway on the Man Who Mapped Manhattan

Editor's note:

This story was originally published on April 20, 2011. The video was published on Feb. 20, 2013.

Fred A. Bernstein
February 19, 2013

Just a few years after Lewis and Clark’s famous expedition to the great Northwest, another intrepid American set out on a journey through challenging terrain at the government’s behest. In 1808, John Randel Jr., a young surveyor, was charged with mapping Manhattan Island and laying out the street grid that, for 200 years, has shaped and spurred the growth of New York City.

In 2004, Marguerite Holloway, an assistant professor at the School of Journalism, found herself writing about the Mannahatta Project—an effort by environmental scientists to “recreate” Manhattan in its natural state. The scientists relied in part on Randel’s data. Fascinated by tales of the Albany-born surveyor (1787-1865), she says, “I tried to find out as much as I could about him—at the time, there was very little. It became an obsession.”

Holloway’s obsession has turned into a biography of Randel that has just been published by W.W. Norton. Researching the book, Holloway, an experienced science journalist, found herself scouring archives throughout the northeastern United States. “I’m used to asking people lots of questions,” she says. “But this time, many of my sources were long dead.”

Her book "The Measure of Manhattan," she says, tries to paint a complete picture of Randel, whom she describes as a visionary. He “wrestled the wildness of the island as he imposed his vision upon it: Gone, in his mind’s eye, were the hills and ponds, the towering chestnut trees, the unruly outcroppings,” she wrote in a "New York Times" piece. “Randel was mesmerized by the image of a magnificent, neatly ordered metropolis.”

Randel was appointed to the task by New York City’s three street commissioners—one of whom was Gouverneur Morris, the 1768 graduate of King’s College who wrote parts of the U.S. Constitution. New York’s mayor for much of that time was DeWitt Clinton (CC 1786) who later as New York’s governor went on to champion a different feat of civil engineering, the Erie Canal.

Randel, whom Morris described as “more ambitious of accuracy than profit,” spent three years surveying the island for the famous Commissioner’s Plan of 1811. Then he spent the next 10 years physically imposing the grid from First Street to 155th Street using more than 1,500 3-foot-tall marble monuments sunk into the ground and, where there was no way to do that, bolts set in rock.

Randel and his men were pelted with vegetables, attacked by dogs and arrested for trespassing—the targets of landowners alarmed by the arrival of right angles in rural areas. Not only were the property lines going to have to be redrawn, but in many cases the imagined thoroughfares went right through barns and houses, Holloway explains.

"We can't say that he came up with the grid plan but he was the person who brought the grid to life...he scratched it into the landscape," she says. "He did it with such precision that surveyors today can follow Randl's maps--he got it right."

A longtime contributor to "Scientific American," Holloway began teaching at the journalism school as an adjunct in 1997 and took a tenure-track position in 2006; she won a presidential teaching award in 2009. Holloway teaches science and environmental reporting in the M.S. program and in the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health and Science Journalism, part of the M.A. program for experienced journalists.

Living on the Upper West Side, Holloway says, she has long appreciated the Manhattan street grid—“I liked it even before I’d heard of Randel.” She also likes the interruptions to the grid, places like the Columbia campus and Morningside Park, which “give you a different experience within the city”—no matter if the park is one of the “unruly outcroppings” Randel worked so hard to tame.