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Book Review: City on a Grid

By (November 6, 2015) One Comment

City on a Grid: How New York Became New Yorkcity on a grid

by Gerard Koeppel

Da Capo Press, 2015

Anyone who’s ever spent any substantial amount of time in Manhattan has personally, viscerally felt the subject of Gerard Koeppel’s new book City on a Grid. It’s an involuntary thing, superimposing itself on the senses while the mind is occupied comparing the pizza unfavorably to how they make it back home, or complaining about the line at the Statue of Liberty, or gawking at the perpetual freak show that is Union Square. On first exposure, it feels entirely too much – sprawling, complicated, impossible. But then, without quite being able to put your finger on precisely when it happened, you feel it: the grid. While your attention has been focused elsewhere, the basement part of your brain that calculates intervals and estimates distances has latched on to the fact that the city is constructed entirely along a street-by-street block-by-block pattern, and the pattern makes sense, and the downstairs part of your brain now understands that pattern, at least on a basic level. You can now feel the grid. It will no longer be possible for you to become completely lost while in Manhattan. The byzantine complexities of the subway system will still require Talmudic study, but thanks to the grid, you’ll always know when you’re going in the right direction.

Given this immediate, universal touchstone, it’s a bit hard to credit that, as Koeppel points out, nobody has written about the grid before. But what it lacks in antecedents, City on a Grid makes up in sheer zest of storytelling. Koeppel begins his story shortly before three men – State Surveyor General Simeon DeWitt, landowner John Rutherford, and mercurial (and criminally under-famous) Founding Father Gourverneur Morris – formed the commission that imposed the grid upon the established city of New York, thereby fixing the nucleus of a psychic landscape millions of later Americans and visitors would come to know like the thoughts in their own heads. Koeppel tells the early history of that grid – its establishment and growth, the personalities who shaped it and sometimes fought it and often profited from it – with good scholarly grounding and enormous amounts of enthusiasm, and he’s remains always sensitive to how counter-intuitive the whole setup is:

Though the shortest distance between two points is not around a right-angled corner, New Yorkers must navigate thousands. Perhaps this is what makes New Yorkers run, rushing from loss toward gain, around corners of street walls that protect private space from the public sphere.

The history uncovered and explored in these pages is uniformly fascinating, but the real high point of City on a Grid is Koeppel’s meditation on what a grid arrangement means at its heart. And some of his conclusions seem as unquestionable as they are slightly unflattering for New Yorkers:

The grid favors private interest over public convenience. The right angle values its interior space. Diagonal or nonlinear routes – dirt footpaths through an empty lot, curvilinear forms traversing natural topography – celebrate public space, the civic interest. A rectilinear-grid dweller moving from one point to another that is not on the same axis is obliged to go out of his or her way, to turn corners. Axial streets are urban moats guarding rectangular castles framing interior lives; these streets are pedestrian, common, subordinate. Diagonal or curving streets force private space into accommodations of shape; diagonals and curves make urban life a promenade, a public display, beautiful, grand, mysterious, mystic. This is not Manhattan.

Citizens of Washington DC have a distantly analogous reality that will help them navigate City on a Grid (for citizens of Boston, alas, the book will make about as much sense as Coleridge’s Xanadu – Beantown residents exposed for too long to Manhattan’s grid find themselves longing to return to the smashed-beehive tangle of Dorchester), but really the story Koeppel tells is quintessentially reserved for New York. Anyone who’s ever felt the grid slowly clarifying inside their own head should read this fantastic book and find out how it all came to be.