More Vestiges

by Don Friedman on January 22, 2018


This is an interesting article by Sarah Bean Apmann for the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation: The Lasting Imprint of Stuyvesant Street. Ms. Apmann is focussed on one of Greenwich Village’s many peculiarities in street layout, but there’s more to discuss in a larger context.

First, oddly, Stuyvesant Street does not quite run true east-west. That’s not a tragedy given that the main Manhattan street grid misses alignment with the cardinal points by almost 29 degrees, but it’s apparently a failure of surveying. Stuyvesant was supposed to be true east-west and somehow is not. Certainly the surveying techniques of the late eighteenth century were capable of drawing a straight line due east-west: the Mason-Dixon Line was drawn earlier to much better accuracy over hundreds of miles.

Second, and more important for the context, Stuyvesant Street is far from being the only carryover of the past in the layout of Manhattan. Here’s the ghost of Stuyvesant Street as seen in oddly-oriented lot boundaries:



Here’s something on the block bounded by Ninth and Tenth Avenues and 30th and 31st Streets. If you look at the lot boundaries in the center of a normal block, like the one between 28th and 29th Streets, you’ll see they are parallel to the streets and halfway between them. (The green arrows show the lot edges.) For some reason, the middle-of-the-block lot boundaries two blocks to the north are all over the place, leading to a series of nearly identical tenements facing 30th Street to be different lengths.



Most of the odd lot lines are the remnants of ancient farms. The owners and use are long gone, but the surveyed boundaries of those old properties survive and will continue to do so unless the lots are bought by the same owner and merged or otherwise reapportioned.

In How Buildings Learn, Stewart Brand discusses the different speeds at which various parts of the built environment change. Paint in an interior has an expected lifespan in the single-digits of years, for example, while building structure has a life of decades to centuries. The natural site is “eternal” which leaves artificial site elements somewhere in between site and structure. These odd lines on a map are hundreds of years old and unlikely to be eradicated soon.

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