Cyclists who’ve ridden through New York and London will notice the difference between their streets, same thing with Rome, Milan, and Tokyo. You’ll see how US cities are plotted on a grid of perpendicular lines, like a giant chessboard, while old cities are not. European and Asian cities plotted their streets along valleys, streams, and hills, while the founding fathers wanted the whole of the USA plotted on a grid. It would become a fundamental influence of American urban planning.
Prior to reading Gerard Koeppel’s City on a Grid I read an earlier book called The Greatest Grid, which includes photographs of Manhattan when it was just farmland. While the earlier book is strictly visual, City on a Grid dives into the scientific origins of America’s gridded cities. Koeppel gives a more historical bend on the grid, which originated in Europe. It was a circular form that would begin with a fort on a hill (typical of Europe) and the town would be settled around it in a circular formation. The difference, according to the author, is that European cities were rarely confined to an island like Manhattan. I don’t necessarily agree with this, because Venice is an island and the streets are somewhat gridded, though the alleys are hard to navigate. However, compared to Manhattan, Venice is a labyrinth. The Paris of today has its origins in urban planning, when Baron Haussmann bulldozed through the Victor Hugo Paris of alleys and warrens in favor of spacious boulevards. The older streets, left untouched, still follow the old pattern.
The first chapters of the book discuss political wrangling and finance problems, because in the early days of the nation, Congress had less authority to tax the people, so it was harder to get Federal money for anything. As for the city, the streets of downtown Manhattan used the old English survey, which what they still follow. Try navigating below City Hall Park and you’ll find yourself in a rabbit warren. Koeppel also goes into the origin of the names, such as Delancey, a pro-Loyalist banker who had his lands confiscated, and the Bowery, originally Pete Stuyvesant’s “boerie,” or farm. Canal Street wasn’t really a canal, as the name suggests, but a drainage ditch for the polluted Collect Pond. If you’re interested in how the streets got their names, there are many websites devoted to city street necropsy.
Much of the city’s grid had to do with the need for housing. Tall buildings were unpopular in the days before elevators, and it was the gradual development of steel girders, heavy equipment, and elevator safety brakes that made the skyscrapers possible. These building projects would not have been possible if they weren’t on a grid. Like I said before, finance was a big part of it, because businessmen needed the large buildings. Neither the wealthy nor the poor wanted smelly ponds and canals, so there was both financial and political incentive to fill them in. Yet in the end, the biggest obstacle is always where to get the money. At no time in history did the Americans ever like taxes.