Why are there no alleys in New York as there are in other American and European cities?
The almost complete lack of alleys in Manhattan above Chambers Street is partly the result of the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan (pictured left), which created the grid-based street pattern seen in New York today. Intended to rationalize the future development of the city, the 1811 Plan called for twelve avenues running north and south to be crossed at right angles by streets running east and west, with standardized lots 20 to 25 by 100 feet stretching unbroken on each block. This overwhelming rectangularity was intended to achieve the plan’s stated goals, which included “a free and abundant circulation of air” and the construction of “straight-sided and right-angled houses [that] are the most cheap to build.”
Sections of Manhattan laid out prior to 1811, including areas of lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village, today feature alleys as artifacts of a pre-planned city. The elite and influential New Yorkers charged in 1807 with establishing a comprehensive street plan for Manhattan viewed alleyways as dangerous to the health and well-being of the city and its inhabitants. Indeed, the plan they conceived appears to have been intended to discourage alleys in the city’s future development. John Randel Jr., who mapped the plan, wrote that the grid was created in part out of a concern for “avoiding the frequent error of laying out short, narrow, and crooked streets, with alleys and courts, endangering extensive conflagrations, confined air, and unclean streets…”
According to historical geographer Reuben Skye Rose-Redwood, “One of the most fundamental, yet unstated, presumptions of the grid plan was that it would literally obliterate nearly everything that stood in its path—clearing away the ‘disorder’ of the past to make way for an ‘improved’ future.” Above all, the commissioners sought to level Manhattan’s natural landscape and bring every inch of the city into productive use by facilitating the sale and distribution of land through a systematic standardization. Rectangular, uniform lots eliminated waste by reducing the number of oddly shaped pieces of land, which in other urban areas sometimes result in alleys. In contrast, the 1811 grid plan helped commodify the Manhattan landscape, dividing all available land into easily measurable, conveniently saleable units. With few exceptions, the plan did not designate land to be set aside for public parks and squares.