The Chemistry of Strategy tm Newsletter September 02, 2009

Why did the NYC Commissioners plow Manhattan Island flat in 1811?

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When my wife Mary and I visited New York City a few years ago we spent the weekend walking through miles of streets and parks without ever getting winded. Why, I wondered, were we able to walk that far compared to my neighborhood walks at home? It then struck me – Manhattan Island is flat while my neighborhood is hilly. Question answered – mystery solved.

But New York hasn’t always been flat. In fact, this month’s National Geographic reminds us that the name Manhattan derives from the Lenape Indian’s word "mannahatta" meaning "island of many hills."

So the question is, where did all the hills go? The answer helps explain why New York, as opposed to Boston or Philadelphia or Jamestown, for that matter, became the hub city for immigrants and commerce and industry in the New World. In 1807, the City Commissioners had a vision to make their city the most important city in the US and ultimately, the world. Their “big hairy audacious goal” (BHAG for short) led to the 1807 gridiron plan which plowed the available parts of Manhattan flat and created a simple north-to-south and east-to-west grid of numbered avenues and cross streets.

In the actual words of the commissioners:

"To others it may be a subject of merriment that the Commissioners have provided space for a greater population than is collected at any spot on this side of China."

Their strategy was to change the status quo and make the island of Manhattan an ideal environment for immigrants. You didn’t need to be an expert in English to locate the corner of Seventh Avenue and 42nd street. The immigrants came, the city flourished and soon New York became the largest city in the US outpacing the former number one – Philadelphia.

But a new contender was already on the scene. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase made the City of New Orleans part of the US. New Orleans had a seemly insurmountable competitive advantage - the Mississippi River. With that kind of access to a quarter of the US, it seemed impossible that New York City could compete.

Not willing to give up on their BHAG, the city leaders decided to “recreate” the Mississippi River. This goal led to the building of the Erie Canal, a man-made waterway in New York that runs about 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo and completes a navigable water route from the Atlantic Ocean, up the Hudson River, to the Great Lakes.

When it opened in 1825, it was the first waterway transportation system between the eastern seaboard (New York City) and the western interior (Great Lakes) of the United States. It was faster and cheaper than overland portage, cutting transportation costs by about 95 percent. The canal fostered a population surge in western New York State, opened regions further west to settlement, and helped New York City become the chief U.S. port.

New York leaders to this day hold onto this vision created by the earliest City Commissioners: to be the Number One City in America.

What's your company's Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

Does your company have a vision that underpins every strategic decision you make? What is your Big Hairy Audacious Goal that drives every decision? Is your staff able to articulate your company’s BHAG? Are you effectively translating that vision into a mission, strategy, and executable strategic goals?

As documented in the business classic "Built to Last", great success comes when you are able to establish and communicate a vision throughout your organization and everyone understands and is expected to act on it.

John W. Myrna

is co-founder of
Myrna Associates Inc


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John Recommends

Manhattan 1609 2009
National Geographic

Long before the hills were bulldozed and its wetlands paved over, Manhattan was an extraordinary wilderness of towering chestnut, oak and hickory trees, of salt marshes and grasslands with turkey, elk, and black bear -- "as pleasant a land as one can tread upon," Henry Hudson reported (after his voyage 400 years ago).

Details in September issue.


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