City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

19 Nov

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

City on a Grid: How New York Became New York

Gerard Koeppel

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 0306822849

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

You either love it or hate it, but nothing says New York like the street grid of Manhattan. Created in 1811 by a three-man commission featuring headstrong Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, the plan called for a dozen parallel avenues crossing at right angles with many dozens of parallel streets in an unbroken grid. Hills and valleys, streams and ponds, forests and swamps were invisible to the grid; so too were country villages, roads, farms, and estates and generations of property lines. All would disappear as the crosshatch fabric of the grid overspread the island: a heavy greatcoat on the land, the dense undergarment of the future city.

No other grid in Western civilization was so large and uniform as the one ordained in 1811. Not without reason. When the grid plan was announced, New York was just under two hundred years old, an overgrown town at the southern tip of Manhattan, a notorious jumble of streets laid at the whim of landowners. To bring order beyond the chaos—and good real estate to market—the street planning commission came up with a monolithic grid for the rest of the island. Mannahatta—the native "island of hills"—became a place of rectangles, in thousands of blocks on the flattened landscape, and many more thousands of right-angled buildings rising in vertical mimicry.

The Manhattan grid has been called "a disaster" of urban planning and "the most courageous act of prediction in Western civilization." However one feels about it, the most famous urban design of a living city defines its daily life. This is its story.




















plan . . . ”: JFM to Common Council, Dec 17, 1798, manuscript letter, New York City Municipal Archives. The greatest single source of information about Mangin is contained in the diligent research conducted over many years by University of Iowa professor Robert L. Alexander, who died in 1998 before he could substantially publish any of his findings, beyond the Mangin entry in the American National Biography. I am deeply indebted to his daughter for providing full access to her father’s research,

authorities . . . ”: Ibid., 24. 137 “There, at least . . . ”: The Knickerbocker magazine, 33:2 (Feb 1849), 185. 138 “it was thought advisable . . . ”: Valentine’s Manual (1854), 536. 139 “binding and conclusive”: Laws of the State of New York, 1813, Chap. 136 (Apr 9, 1813). 139 “to become a capitalist . . . ”: Moore, Plain Statement, 52. 139 “spirit of divination”: Ibid., 14. 141 “The evils which would grow . . . ”: MCC, 10: 223 (Feb 1, 1819). 142 “These Laws were intended . . . ”: Peter

research. And the highlights are now online: My books don’t get published without the approval of Russ Galen, my agent. If Russ can’t sell it, I don’t write it. I threw him a succession of different pitches for this book before he liked my stuff. At Da Capo, erudite editor Rober Pigeon shaped the manuscript with his seasoned touch, always praising and suggesting, never criticizing or demanding; this is our second of what I hope are (many) more books together. If you’re

matter how useful they would be [they] are wholly impracticable, because it is in the neighborhood of these congested centers that land is so valuable and the number of skyscrapers so considerable. No clear-headed municipal administration would dare to accept the responsibility of adopting and beginning the realization of a plan which, in the course of its fulfilment, might easily double the municipal debt, and effect an enormous increase in the tax rate.” Croly understood how and why the

that it would be ignored: “It is surprising how the idea of removing a small wart from the face of the city frightens New Yorkers.” But he already was airing much grander ideas. “Thomson is a large man of pleasing personality and address, and with a keen mind, used to grappling with scientific problems of great magnitude,” the Brooklyn Daily Eagle informed its Sunday magazine readers on August 31, 1913, under a banner headline: “BIG PLAN TO WIPE EAST RIVER OFF THE MAP.” Substantially expanding

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