Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mythologies of the Grid in the Empire City, 1811-2011

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mythologies of the Grid in the Empire City, 1811-2011

Article excerpt

Few city plans have captured the popular imagination more than Manhattan's gridded streets and avenues, which are commonly taken to be a quintessential symbol of the modern city (Spann 1988; Rose-Redwood 2002; Scobey 2002). Given the central role that New York City is accorded in the history of urban planning, its famous grid plan, generally referred to as the "Commissioners' Plan of 1811," is often highlighted as marking a significant turning point in the age of modern urbanism (Adler, Howells, and McCorquodale 2009). Not surprisingly, considerable scholarly attention has been devoted to uncovering the "origin" of the city's grid plan. A myth first popularized by Frederick Law Olmsted, one of the designers of New York's Central Park, perhaps best encapsulates the spirit of historical criticism over the past two centuries. "There seems to be good authority for the story," declared Olmsted and his colleague James Croes in 1877, "that the system of 1807 was hit upon by the chance occurrence of a mason's sieve near a map of the ground to be laid out. It was taken up and placed upon a map, and the question being asked, 'what do you want better than that?' no one was able to answer. This may not be the. whole story of the plan, but the result is the same as if it were" (Olmsted and Croes 1971, 45).

The "story" is completely fictional, of course, but it nevertheless calls our attention to the long-standing desire lo construct foundational myths that explain the intentions behind the origin of cities. Although subsequent scholarship has relied on more rigorous examinations of archival materials, I argue here that such works have constructed a mythology of their own, one which relies on the "good authority" of a foundational text that serves as the basis for reconstructing the original intentions of the grid's designers.

This article contributes to a genealogy of urban form which, as I have noted elsewhere, calls into question the belief that the "essence" of the grid or any other settlement pattern can be deciphered by uncovering its authentic origin in a distant past (Rose-Redwood 2008; see also Huxley 2010). The doctrine of what we might call "morphological essentialism" posits that the symbolic meaning of urban form is determined primarily by the original intentions or functions associated with such morphological structures at the foundational moment of their initial conception (for a recent illustration of this doctrine, see Hubbard 2009). A critical genealogy of planning history, by contrast, rejects the reductionism that underpins this theoretical position and instead seeks to broaden the conceptual horizon of landscape interpretation by acknowledging the multiplicity of meanings that are often affixed to particular spatial formations in contradictory way's to serve competing interests. Such a theoretical shift has important methodological implications, one of which is a general skepticism toward privileging the explicit intentions expressed in official planning documents as providing an authoritative foundation for interpreting the significance of urban form. This methodological issue may seem self-evident, but all too often historical commentators and planning practitioners rely on such official statements to construct canonical accounts of urban planning history.

In this study, I seek to demonstrate how the historical scholarship on Manhattan's grid street plan has constructed a mythology of the grid through the narration of urban origins. Within this context the notion of "myth"' should not be taken as referring to false speculations about past events. On the contrary, I make the counterintuitive claim that the most "truthful" historical narratives--or at any sale, those accounts that remain most faithful to the archival record--have the greatest capacity to produce historical mythologies. What is at issue in this conception of myth is not so much the truth content of a historical narrative but the extent to which it becomes incorporated into a ritual of narrating historical origins. …

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