November 25, 2015


City on a Grid: How New York Became New York. By Gerard Koeppel. Da Capo. $29.99.

     It is part of the charm or arrogance of New Yorkers – take your pick – that they assume that everyone everywhere is fascinated by absolutely everything about their city. That would include the reasons that Manhattan – which is only one of the city’s five boroughs but which is New York to most non-New Yorkers, and even to many residents – is mostly laid out in a charmless grid of streets. The clear, clean layout makes it simple for even a first-time visitor to get from one location to another (except when the numbered avenues give way to named ones such as Lexington, Park and Madison). But it also lends the small, crowded island a kind of blocky, staid, rectangular heaviness of design that is reflected again and again in the numerous blocky, staid, rectangular buildings built on and visible from so many of the streets.

     Native New Yorker Gerard Koeppel considers Manhattan’s grid layout to be its defining feature, a stance for which a good argument can be made; and in City on a Grid he explains just how the crisscrossing lines of streets and avenues came to be. His book is a history lesson, which is all to the good, and an extended dwelling upon the intricacies of largely faceless bureaucrats’ machinations, which is not so good. A few of the names here are familiar, notably that of Gouverneur Morris, who not only signed the Articles of Confederation but also wrote portions of the Constitution. But most of the people Koeppel discusses are less than notable, and most of their motives appear to have been less than lofty.

     This is a book for readers fascinated by the intricacies of the politics of more than two centuries ago. There is much writing of this sort: “The Council that sought the 1807 Commission was overwhelmingly Federalist. The Council voting 7-7 in October 1808 (elected in November 1807) was overwhelmingly Republican. Federalists were unanimously in favor, 3-0; Republicans were overwhelmingly opposed, 7-4; four Council members, two from each party, were absent. Of the fourteen 1808 voters, only five had been on the 1807 Council, with all four of the returning Republicans voting no and the lone returning Federalist voting yes. The division on the original 1807 vote wasn’t recorded, but the suggestion is strong that it was the Federalist majority that created the 1807 commission and the Republican majority in 1808 that wanted to undo it.”

     Politics has been messy in the United States ever since the country’s establishment, and, for that matter, even before. Readers who share Koeppel’s relishing of the ins and outs of this subject will find his narrative compelling, but only such readers are likely to be pulled into it. The fact is that the grid system, which was originally laid out in 1811 and at the time did not include such features as Broadway (which cuts across other avenues) and Central Park, is a simple but boring layout, an imposition of conformity on an island whose very name, Manna-hata, is generally accepted as being a Lenape word for “island of many hills.” The grid system overrode the hills and other natural features of the land, imposing uniformity and efficiency at the price of unattractiveness, congestion, poor drainage and – issues for modern times, with buildings towering overhead on every block – limited light and air (except during the wind-tunnel effect created by every storm). It is perhaps fanciful but not out of the question to suggest that one element of New Yorkers’ well-known propensity for going everywhere super-quickly involves their unconscious desire to spend as little time as possible outdoors on Manhattan’s unpleasant grid.

     Koeppel’s interest, though, is not psychology but urban planning, and the politics underlying it. Yet there is a curious absence of conflict in the story of Manhattan’s grid, resulting in a book of interest mostly to specialists and dyed-in-the-wool New Yorkers. There was no recorded opposition to the 1811 grid plan until 1818, and when a complaint did arise, the complainer – none other than Clement Clarke Moore, best known as the putative author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” – was soon won over by the prospect of realizing significant profit from subdividing his land. Yes, the plan was eventually fought over in courts, and yes, there were those who deemed the grid system ugly and soul-stifling, but what is truly remarkable in Koeppel’s story is that no one in particular was charged with implementing the plan after its creation – yet it was implemented, over decades, as if it took on a life of its own once it was devised.

     New York likes to think of itself as the trendsetter for the United States, and Koeppel’s book shows that to be true in important ways where urban design is concerned: the success of the Manhattan grid system encouraged the building of grids elsewhere, where flat land and open spaces made doing so easier (and even in some locations where natural features had to be taken into account, such as the water surrounding St. Petersburg, Florida). Whether New Yorkers should be proud of their trendsetting in this case is arguable: there is little beauty to Manhattan, and what there is tends to be found in areas off the grid, such as the confusing Lower Manhattan streets whose complexity was a major argument for the grid in the first place. Koeppel clearly loves New York, but is honest enough to detail both the pluses and minuses of the design that, as his subtitle indicates, made Manhattan what it is today. Certainly it is a place of power and influence, and perhaps, psychologically, the grid’s uniformity and encouragement of regularity has something to do with that. But it is also a place of extremely high stress and considerable ugliness, one whose intensity many people admire from afar but one whose design many others, including today’s urban planners, would scarcely seek to emulate.

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