Manhattan's street grid is one of the island's most notable features. Is it the result of careful planning, or was it just an easy way out for the city planners who laid out the bustling metropolis in the early 19th Century? Historian Gerard Koeppel explores the history of the grid at depth in his forthcoming book "City on a Grid: How New York Became New York." On Tuesday, Koeppel will discuss his findings in a curated talk at the Museum of the City of New York with Hilary Ballon, who curated a City Museum exhibit about the grid back in 2011 that coincided with its 200-year anniversary. Ahead of the talk, Curbed caught up with Koeppel to get the lowdown on the book (which was recently featured in a write up by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker, and is currently the number one bestseller on Amazon in the Architectural History section.)
Construction started on the grid in 1811 with 11 north to south avenues planned north of Houston Street and 155 cross streets stretching up to present-day 155th Street. It took 60 years to complete that original plan. From the beginning, it's had its detractors.
Notable figures like Henry James referred to it as a "primal, topographic curse," and Alexis de Tocqueville lamented its "relentless monotony." Others like Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas commented that its rigid structure created "undreamed-of freedom for three-dimensional anarchy," all according the New York Times, which ran a piece concurrent with the anniversary in 2011.
Koeppel was inspired to write the book in the aftermath of 9/11. He recalled a painting by French emigre Anne-Marguerite Hyde de Neuville, depicting a mother helping her child get water out of a public well at the intersection of Dey and Greenwich streets. That intersection vanished when the original World Trade Center towers were built in the 1960s. However in recent years as that site has changed, especially with the planning of the new One World Trade Center, the intersection reappeared.
That led Koeppel to wonder: How would the grid be affected if something were to happen to the Empire State Building, which sits right in the middle of it, unlike the World Trade Center buildings? From there, Koeppel, whose other titles include "Water for Gotham: A History," and "Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Nation," began researching for "City on a Grid." His line of questioning: Should we view the grid as a static, unchanged phenomena, or something that needs to adapt to the needs of the modern world?
Koeppel highlights both those who stand in favor of the grid pattern and those who are vociferously against it, particularly contemporary urban planners such as Peter Marcuse, who teaches at Columbia University, and John Reps, who teaches at Cornell University. Koeppel however is hesitant to share his own views about the grid. He said he wants his book to serve as a vehicle to foster greater discussion and debate about the subject.
"I want different readers to take away different things," he told Curbed NY. "I want this to serve just as a history book for those who enjoy reading about this history and also want it to serve as a tool for city planners today who might not be aware of some of the specifics of the plan and how it was developed in subsequent years."
WHO: Gerard Koeppel, author of City on a Grid: How New YorK Became New York, and Hilary Ballon, Curator of City Museum's The Greatest Grid exhibition.
WHEN: Tuesday, November 10, at 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd St.
Purchase tickets to the event at City Museum here and check out the Museum's 2011 exhibit here.
· Event Link [The Museum of the City of New York]
· Book Link [Amazon]
· 200th Birthday for the Map That Made New York [New York Times]