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When Government Was a Bear

A Commentary by Froma Harrop

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Are conservatives right that our government has become overbearing? Is it true that the rights of the individual, enshrined at the dawn of the Republic and cried over by Glenn Beck, are being smashed by the modern state?

One doesn't have to be a conservative to list offensive government interventions. (I don't think the feds have any business ripping up a marijuana plant in a homeowner's yard.) But this idea that the Founders oversaw a golden age of individual rights and that we've since become serfs of an all-devouring government is a fantasy. Consider the creation of Manhattan's street grid, now "celebrating" its 200th anniversary.

In 1811, the "father" of the Constitution James Madison was president. While the Constitution protected property rights, it also let government take private property for public uses (whether or not the owners thought the compensation fair) -- which New York City did in spades.

The city's commissions fully backed a master plan to stuff Manhattan's forests, farms and country homes into neat rectangular blocks with numbers for names. It obliterated winding roads, filled swamps and leveled hills.

Two years earlier, New York lawmakers had already empowered surveyors to "cut down trees and do other damage" necessary to achieve the goal. (The only streets to get a reprieve north of the old downtown were Broadway, originally an Indian path that diagonally crossed Manhattan, and those in Greenwich Village, which was already highly developed.)

This would be akin to taking an exurban county and telling residents that their familiar drives were about to be wiped off the map according to a grand plan. If the blueprint shows an avenue going through your swimming pool, the avenue is going through your swimming pool. As for the hill your house sits on, that's history.

Cable TV's cup would runneth over with enraged citizens, yet 200 years ago in New York City, sensitivity to the rights of the individual was not high on the agenda. The commissioners determined that Manhattan Island was "to be composed principally of the habitations of men, and that straight-sided and right-angled houses are the most cheap to build and the most convenient to live in." Forget cow pastures, New Yorkers. Henceforth, you will be living in walk-ups.

Though deed-holders were compensated for seized property, many did not go quietly into the night. Some threw cabbages at the plan's chief engineer, John Randel Jr., and set their hounds on him.

Clement Clarke Moore, author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," complained, "Nothing is to be left unmolested which does not coincide with the street commissioner's plummet and level." He called the authorities "men who would have cut down the seven hills of Rome." And they would have.

Not only did the city run roughshod over property owners, it raised their taxes to pay for the new streets. Furthermore, the plan unleashed squads of speculators and corrupt officials bent on making a killing in Manhattan real estate.

Speaking of which, the grid has been credited with turning Manhattan into the financial and commercial powerhouse it is today -- and its land into gold. For all his complaints, Moore reportedly did very well marketing bits of his own Manhattan holdings. And the heirs of the farmer who did not sell in disgust after a numbered street ran right through his woodshed could have become fabulously rich.

Today, a city's attempt to condemn a used-car lot for economic development would be subject to angry debate and perhaps a Supreme Court challenge. Yet the iron-fisted, wholesale makeover of most of Manhattan took part in the alleged golden era of small government.

Progress? Yes.

Pretty? No.

Fair? You decide.

COPYRIGHT 2011 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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