The Other Grid At 200

Museum of the City of New York Notice how Park Ave. filling in, 1882, looks like Lancaster Ave. emptying, 2012

We imagine William Penn sitting in an English estate looking out fearfully at the chaos of London, and inventing our rational grid, a stamp of a new way of life on the edge of a wild river. Reality, as I have noted before, was quite different. Penn wished for a great piece of land–10,000 acres–on which to superimpose his great city; after negotiations with the Swedes and the Lenape, he got his narrow slice between the rivers. But the act of making a city, as landscape architect Dilip da Cunha says, was one of encountering the ground itself, and building little by little, only as the ground would allow (for decades trees stood in the middle of streets and creeks sprang everywhere).

The resulting man-nature compromise, amplified now in the post-industrial retreat, is a city, as writer Sharon White puts it in Vanished Gardens, that is “an extensive garden, a bit wild in parts…Because isn’t it a wilderness of sorts? The bones of the wilderness still there in the brooks flowing in pipes under the city, the soil that pokes up with its history of the old wilderness soil, rerouted, recycled elements.”

Not so, perhaps, the other one, the 1811 grid of New York, which celebrates it 200th anniversary in a show at the Museum of the City of New York. New York Times architecture critic Michael Kimmelman says in yesterday’s paper, “the grid was big government in action, a commercially minded boon to private development and, almost despite itself, a creative template…The planners proposed a grid for this future city stretching northward from roughly Houston Street to 155th Street in the faraway heights of Harlem. It was in many respects a heartless plan.”

“The plotting of the streets and blocks,” writes Rem Koolhaas in Delirious New York, “announces that the subjugation, if not obliteration, of nature is its true ambition.”

“New York,” writes Jerome Charyn in Metropolis,

decided to grow along a grid, ignoring bumps, ditches, and heights, and the particular bend of its rivers. It would be a phantom grid of 2028 blocks, where anything that was built upon them could be removed at will. So we have the Empire State Building dug into the old cradle of the Waldorf-Astoria. And the Waldorf is shoved into another grid. We have a Madison Square Garden on Madison Square and then the Garden starts to float, like a gondola on the grid. It reappears uptown, caters to circuses and rodeos, the Rangers and the Knicks, becomes a parking lot, and the Garden is born again over the new Penn Station. It’s an ugly ass tank, but who cares? Nothing is sacred except the grid.

About the author

Nathaniel Popkin is co-founder of the Hidden City Daily and author of three books of non-fiction, including Philadelphia: Finding the Hidden City (with Peter Woodall and Joseph E.B. Elliott) and two novels, Everything is Borrowed and Lion and Leopard. He is co-editor of Who Will Speak for America, an anthology forthcoming in June 2018, and the senior writer of the film documentary "Philadelphia: The Great Experiment."



Leave a Reply

Comment moderation is enabled, no need to resubmit any comments posted.

Recent Posts
African-American Abolitionist & Son Of Former Vice President Aaron Burr Receives Formal Recognition

African-American Abolitionist & Son Of Former Vice President Aaron Burr Receives Formal Recognition

August 19, 2019  |  News

The remains of John Pierre Burr, a black Philadelphia abolitionist and natural son of former Vice President Aaron Burr, has resided in an unmarked grave for more than a century. He will receive formal recognition and an official headstone on Saturday, August 24. Kessler Thibert has the details > more

Historic Maritime Landmark Under Threat After Construction Mishap

Historic Maritime Landmark Under Threat After Construction Mishap

August 15, 2019  |  News

Deferred maintenance and a construction error endangers Edward Corner warehouse, one of the waterfront's last prominent reminders of Philadelphia's shipping history. Starr Herr Cardillo has the details > more

In Northeast Philadelphia, A Rich History Of Train Tracks And Acquisitions

In Northeast Philadelphia, A Rich History Of Train Tracks And Acquisitions

August 13, 2019  |  Vantage

Ed Duffy give us a panoramic view of railroad history in Northeast Philadelphia with this longform essay > more

Eastern State Penitentiary Illuminates “Hidden Lives” Of The Incarcerated

Eastern State Penitentiary Illuminates “Hidden Lives” Of The Incarcerated

August 9, 2019  |  News

"Hidden Lives Illuminated," an animated film project created by inmates of SCI Chester, debuts at Eastern State Penitentiary on August 15. Kimberly Haas went inside the state prison to speak with the incarcerated artists > more

Rittenhouse SoundWorks Keeps The Tune Ups Coming In Old Auto Garage

Rittenhouse SoundWorks Keeps The Tune Ups Coming In Old Auto Garage

August 7, 2019  |  Vantage

A Germantown couple bet big on adaptive reuse when they converted an old garage into a full-service recording studio in 2014. Today, they are sought out by musicians from around the globe. Stacia Friedman has the story > more

In Germantown, Saving A Neighborhood's Character One Renovation At A Time

In Germantown, Saving A Neighborhood’s Character One Renovation At A Time

August 2, 2019  |  Vantage

Emily Birdie Busch profiles nine renovation projects in Germantown that are keeping the neighborhood's architectural history within view > more