The little triangle you see above is the result of the collision of New York City’s street grid with New York City’s attitude. And it happened over a hundred years ago. But the story begins a lot earlier, when Manhattan Island was a new and popular place to settle, long before city planners tied to make sense of the city.
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While most of New York City’s streets are laid out in a neatly ordered grid, Lower Manhattan—the oldest part of the city—is, cartographically speaking, kind of a mess. That’s because the city didn’t implement an official master plan for the layout of new streets until 1811, more than a century after the Dutch established a settlement at the southern tip of the island. The earliest-built parts of the city still maintain some of the quirks of a pre-plan settlement where property owners built their own streets with nearly no official oversight, resulting in a haphazard array of oddly shaped, variably sized blocks and narrow, crooked streets.
The bit of property now known as Hess’s triangle is located in this latter part of Manhattan, where the street grid is still a little wonky. It was even more so in the 1910s, when the city decided it needed to extend Seventh Avenue, a wide thoroughfare that was first built as part of that landmark 1811 master plan. In order to make room for traffic and for the construction of a new subway line, the city condemned an 11-block stretch of the West Village, demolishing hundreds of buildings starting in 1913. The extension was finished in 1916.
David Hess owned one of those buildings that was condemned, and he didn’t like the idea one bit. Read the story of the Hess Triangle at Mental Floss, and see an explanation of the maps that led to it in this Twitter thread.
(Image credit: Chris Hamby)