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Before the grid: How 2nd Avenue and 42nd Street looked in 1861. (New York Public Library)

Before the grid: How 2nd Avenue and 42nd Street looked in 1861. (New York Public Library)

Not long after the Revolutionary War, New York was still just a few hundred buildings clustered at the lower end of Manhattan. But the city’s leaders knew that eventually they’d be spreading north and needed to figure out how that would look. So they put together something called the Commissioners’ Plan. It showed an imaginary city spreading north in evenly measured blocks that acted almost as a rebuke to downtown’s (still existing today) hodge-podge of randomly angled thoroughfares and alleys. The grid seemed like a good idea, but had its problems. Among them, almost no green space (Central Park would have to be carved out decades later) and the fact that it stopped at 155th Street (the belief was that it would take “centuries” for people to start building that far north).

Gerard Koeppel’s fascinating urban history City on a Grid is on sale now. My review is at PopMatters:

Order has never been something that most people associate with New York. Among the estranged and jealous family of American cities, the old Dutch trading post that redefined the very idea of what a metropolis could be has always suffered from a reputation for chaos. And not the fun, Lord of Misrule brand of chaos witnessed in places like New Orleans, but a genuine lack of order. There is no other American city so associated with breakdowns in the body politic or general operating principles as New York…

There’s a great, extensive online exhibition about the grid from the Museum of the City of New York here.

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