City on a Grid: How New York Became New York by Gerard Koeppel

I became interested in urban planning after taking a course on it in college. So, I was intrigued when I received a copy of Gerard Koeppel’s City on a Grid.

The book is a fascinating look at urban planning (or lack thereof in some respects) from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries in America’s largest city – New York City. Koeppel goes into great detail on the origins of New York City’s grid network, including looking at the three men that had such an impact on the plan that was used to form the grid.

I especially like Koeppel’s comments on the reasons for the plan, which was to put the city’s streets into an order that did not exist. However, through that order, Koeppel convincingly argues that it sterilized the city because all geography was obliterated in favor of uniformity.

Koeppel includes stories on several crucial periods in New York’s development. For instance, after Central Park had been created, there were several attempts to either eliminate or reduce the size of the park. Thankfully for New Yorkers, those attempts came to naught.

In addition to the stories, another strength of the book is the discussion of the personalities who were pivotal to the creation of the grid and the development of it. For example, not only was Aaron Burr influential (for good and bad reasons) in the early United States, but he also had an influence with the grid due to his association with Joseph Mangin, an early city surveyor who helped in the initial plans for a grid. Koeppel includes many other stories of the persons who were the decision makers that shaped the grid.

City on a Grid is a masterful piece that explains the creation and evolution of New York City’s grid.

City on a Grid Book Cover City on a Grid
Gerard Koeppel
History
November 10, 2015
336

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.

About the author

Jeff Grim

Jeff Grim has been a reader all of his life. He has had a particular interest in military history, any war at any time. His fascination with military history has brought him to an interest in historical fiction where the history comes alive with fictitious heroes and villains. Recently, Jeff has become interested in historical mysteries set in various time periods.

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