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The Man who made Manhattan

The pioneering spirit of John Randel Jr catalysed the birth of the Modern city

This is the story of a forgotten man. A story of professional heroism, personal tragedy and the creation of the greatest city in the world. It is a story that could undoubtedly be told of many unknown servants of American advancement, of 19th-century engineering, of early technological experimentation; but this particular tale is suitably emblematic of that period of perfectibility, order and the emergent power of reason.

John Randel Jr was born in Albany in 1787; the year that saw the birth of the French Revolution and the US Constitution. As a young adult, he regularly walked past the Herring Street home of Thomas Paine and saw him sitting in the window, reading, a bottle of brandy by his side. (He subsequently witnessed the moment of his death.) These were turbulent times in America, as de Tocqueville described years later, wherein the prevailing frame of mind was ‘ardent and relaxed, violent and enervated’.

As a child, Randel’s Presbyterian minister sermonised about making ‘men wiser and better’, where new knowledge ‘was not opposed to revelation but deepened one’s knowledge of it’, and in Randel, these social and personal influences seemed to have created a man ‘of the Enlightenment, born into a culture and period in which reason and measured action were prized and dominion over the natural world − through exploration, experiment, science, cartography, and infrastructure − was celebrated’.

The book is notionally about one expression of that rational age, the imposition of an urban grid in New York. In 1808, the city fathers employed Randel to measure much of the city and to implement the grid from 1810. His doggedness, organisation and personal sacrifice are documented in full due to his copious notes and pocketbooks, and in the many hugely detailed maps that he created.

He seems to have been a cantankerous and litigious individual, but his job required an emotional distance from quotidian concerns in favour of the bigger picture. At the time of his surveys, many farmers and businesses had settled in arbitrary plots across the city and Randel’s rationalising grid sometimes ran roads through their homes. The grid − an ‘a priori blueprint’ − meant that the real lives and livelihoods of those affected were of secondary importance to the promised ‘egalitarianism through uniform geometry’.

His strenuous personal efforts seem to have been met by feuds, professional jealousies and non-payment of fees that all combined to his downfall. Holloway documents his tribulations in vivid detail, from the repeated theft of his horse to the shameful conduct of Chesapeake & Delaware Canal Company during the construction of the Erie Canal (which generated a defence counsel document entitled ‘The Shocking Oppression and Injustice Suffered for Sixteen Months by John Randel Jun Esq’).

Randel was more than the man who created New York’s grid. He was a surveyor, engineer and cartographer of note, who worked on hugely significant projects in the development of America’s early infrastructure. As an inventor, for example, he proposed a brilliant non-stopping elevated railway for New York: one that was overlooked for a lesser version.

John Randel Jr

Visionary engineer John Randel Jr spent months up to his neck in mosquito-infested waters in order to create a new city

There is so much more to John Randel Jr, but in some ways this could have been a much shorter book. With the story of the grid covering a quarter of the pages, far too much is taken up with the contemporary reflections by the author. This is its weakness.

Holloway documents the search, in 2004, for a particular surveying bolt; one that would prove the accuracy and legacy of Randel’s maps. It would show that Randel woz ‘ere. Eventually they find one, hammered into a rock in Central Park. Much whooping. This relic from the past confirms the location of a street intersection that had been buried under the weight of Frederick Law Olmsted’s Central Park for almost 150 years.

Unfortunately, this historical tension between Randel’s Enlightenment rationality and Olmsted’s later Romanticism is touched on but never fully explored. However, what is revealed is the tension between Enlightenment rationalism and modern relativism. The author’s narrative style, flipping between now and then, juxtaposes the grand ambitions of the early explorers and the petty concerns of the modern-day archaeologists. It draws moral equivalence between historical fact and contemporary relevance, so much so that you would be forgiven for thinking that the heroic pioneer in question was the one who simply found the bolt.

As a result, the author spends far too long trying to convince us of the congruence between some PhD geek with a metal detector and an engineering pioneer who spent 20 hours a day up to his neck in mosquito-infested swamps with a surveying pole in order to create a new city. Admittedly, they both ‘discovered’ things, but one was a visionary cartographer, the other, a mapping technician.

The real distinction is that Randel fought obsessively for accuracy, while the latter revels in depressing relativism. As a result, an autobiography of one of the world’s cartographic masters concludes that mapping is futile: ‘You will never know exactly where you are’. What a tragic misdirection

The Measure of Manhattan: The Tumultuous Career and Surprising Legacy of John Randel Jr, Cartographer, Surveyor, Inventor, Marguerite Holloway, WW Norton & Co, $26.95

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