How Many NYC Blocks Are in a Mile?

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So How Many NYC Blocks Are in a Mile?

The average length of a north-south block in Manhattan runs approximately 264 feet, which means there are about 20 blocks per mile.

The average length of a north-south block in Manhattan runs approximately 264 feet, which means there are about 20 blocks per mile.

However, let’s ponder upon the intriguing aspect of the blocks situated amidst the avenues. Their reliability is somewhat questionable. To provide a general overview, the approximate measurement between avenues is around 750 feet, resulting in nearly seven blocks spanning east to west within a single mile. Nevertheless, it is important to acknowledge the existence of considerable discrepancies in this regard.

Here are the figures for the official region of Manhattan’s street layout, extending from Houston Street to 155th Street:

The span separating First and Second avenues measures 650 feet, whereas the gap between Second and Third Avenues is 610 feet. As we progress towards the Third and Sixth Avenues, the distance between blocks incrementally stretches to 920 feet. Finally, between the Sixth and Twelfth avenues, the block length measures a solid 800 feet.

How can we address the fluctuations? Let’s examine the past. When the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811 (we’ll delve deeper into this later) presented a blueprint for Manhattan’s iconic grid system, the landscape of industry was considerably distinct. As stated in the “Encyclopedia of New York City,” the blocks near the Hudson and East River shorelines were constructed in close proximity, foreseeing future growth and the potential for waterfront properties. Avenues were intentionally designed to be lengthy and spacious, accommodating vehicles such as the omnibus or horse-bus, a traditional mode of mass transportation pulled by horses.

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The Size of Manhattan Blocks Was Determined Back in 1811

It all traces back to the Commissioners’ Plan.

Around 1800, the Common Council of New York, now known as the “City Council,” embarked on a mission to transform the chaotic arrangement of lower Manhattan. The haphazard layout, shaped by animal trails and the unpredictable meanderings of pedestrians, was deemed in need of regulation. Consequently, the council mandated that all upcoming streets must be authorized and imposed charges on property owners to ensure the upkeep of their respective local thoroughfares.

However, as the metropolis of NYC expanded, conflicting perspectives on advancing development stalled any advancements, leading the city to seek assistance from the state legislature. In response, a commission was established, bestowed with the “unrivaled authority to design thoroughfares, pathways, and communal spaces… In a manner that maximizes the well-being of the public.”

Years of surveying commenced. What the commission landed on was so tried-and-true that the ancient Egyptians had relied on it: the gridiron.

How the NYC Street Grid Came to Be

The unadorned grid may lack allure, but it undeniably functions. The scheme – the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, to be precise – was straightforward:

Manhattan’s urban design called for a harmonious convergence of linear thoroughfares, where straight streets and avenues would gracefully intersect at perfect right angles. The grand blueprint envisioned a majestic arrangement of precisely 12 north-south avenues, seamlessly intertwined with an ample number of numerically labeled cross streets. To cater to the distinctive geographical inclination of Manhattan, the entire grid would elegantly slant 29 degrees towards the eastern horizon, aligning with the city’s captivating angularity.

manhattan commissioners plan of 1811

Map of the Plan of 1811 created by the Commissioners. (Click to expand.)

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In contrast to the broad 60-foot wide east-west numbered streets, certain crosstown streets were generously expanded to function as bustling thoroughfares. Their numerical names carry an air of anticipation: 14th, 23rd, 34th, 42nd, 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th, 96th, 106th, 116th, 125th, 135th, 145th, and 155th streets proudly boast a spacious width of 100 feet. (In the present day, it’s worth mentioning that 106th, 110th, and 116th streets exhibit a mix of 100-foot and 60-foot widths in different sections.)

The construction of the grid involved the placement of a staggering 1,549 marble markers at every intersection. Despite facing acts of vandalism from dissatisfied property owners, ongoing legal disputes, and various environmental challenges, the city successfully materialized. The grid’s expansion to 155th Street was a slow and arduous journey spanning 60 long years, but it eventually came to fruition.

The Longest and Shortest NYC Blocks

Choose your ideal stretch in NYC’s urban maze; any block between Fifth and Sixth avenues will do, boasting an impressive length of up to 920 feet.

Among the contenders for the title of the shortest street, two stand out in a neck-and-neck competition. Edgar Street, nestled between Trinity Place and Greenwich Street, just around the corner from the iconic New York Stock Exchange, spans a mere 64 feet. Not far behind in terms of brevity is Mill Lane, located east of Bowling Green, stretching between South William Street and Stone Street. This pint-sized lane is so diminutive that it proudly eschews any addresses.

Is the Manhattan Street Grid Democratic or Ugly?

Initially, it appeared to be the consensus that the only element of beauty in Manhattan’s grid was its unique and beautiful pragmatism.

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In her biography of John Randel Jr., The mastermind behind the grid, Marguerite Holloway emphasizes that the grid was initially conceived to exemplify the notion that the “government should refrain from fostering any form of special advantage or inequality.” The grid embodies equality and inclusivity, making it a symbol of democracy for all.

The artists held contrasting opinions. According to Walt Whitman, the streets of Manhattan were “the epitome of an unsightly location.” Edith Wharton, on the other hand, described it as “stifled by its monotonous and unappealing appearance.” Henry James mourned the fact that the city’s layout failed to take advantage of its natural landscape, criticizing it as “the result of unimaginative minds and a missed chance to utilize its two splendid waterfronts.”

Within the labyrinthine maze of urban thoroughfares, philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre added his voice, proclaiming: “In the faceless multitude of city streets and boulevards, I dissolve into the crowd, becoming a mere reflection of humanity, utterly indistinguishable. I am perpetually adrift, perpetually searching, forever immersed in a state of beautiful disorientation.”

Today, it is undeniable that both New Yorkers and visitors revel in the grid’s navigational simplicity. Moreover, there were visionary intellectuals who recognized the value in its structured arrangement. As French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes eloquently expressed, the grid’s purpose was not to transform the city into a mechanical behemoth or its inhabitants into mindless automatons. Rather, it sought to empower individuals to effortlessly comprehend distances and directions through their own cognitive prowess. Ultimately, the grid aimed to bestow upon each person a poetic sense of ownership over the global hub that is the capital.

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