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Keywords:

  • essentialism;
  • genealogy;
  • grid;
  • mythology;
  • narrative;
  • New York City;
  • urban planning history

abstract.

In this article, I examine the performative dimensions of historical narration as a form of modern mythmaking by reconsidering conventional narratives on the “origins” of Manhattan's grid street plan of 1811. The historical mythology of the grid espoused in canonical readings of the Plan of 1811 relies extensively on a rearticulation of the official explanation that the grid's designers provided in a foundational text known as the “Commissioners’ Remarks”. I argue that such accounts result in an extraordinarily narrow and formulaic interpretation of the utilitarian motives and intentions behind the city's grid plan, one that reinforces a form of “morphological essentialism”. To support this argument, I shift the focus of attention beyond the “Commissioners’ Remarks” in order to complicate readings of the intentionality that gave rise to the 1811 street plan. I conclude by suggesting that the mythic search for the “origins” of the grid in the realm of founding intentions can most effectively be challenged by drawing attention to the proliferation of countermyths of gridded space.