City on a Grid

Gerard Koeppel ’79 is an unusual writer. He combines passion, wit, intelligence and tons of research into history books that are interesting to a very wide range of readers. He has published books on the making of the Erie canal (Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire) and about how New York city has developed mechanisms to deliver enough fresh water to support its population (Water for Gotham: A History). Over the break I’ve been reading City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, which examines the architectural and urban planning history of New York City.

Gerard shows that in the early 1800s a small commission imposed a grid on the development of the city so as to create rectangle after rectangle, right angle after right angle. There were some who argued that this was tyranny (these men “would have cut down the seven hills of Rome”), but in many ways the future of the city was laid out by that early commission. “Streets and avenues were drawn on the plan with complete disregard to natural features, and, over the decades…and natural features were simply cut down, filled in, and paved over.”

Gerard will be talking about his book and reading from it at Wesleyan on February 18th at 4:30 pm in Usdan 108.

Toward the end of his fascinating book, Gerard writes “It is very hard to design the future. It is easier to understand the past.” His understanding of New York’s gridded past should inform any plans to create a more sustainable city for tomorrow.