MYTHOLOGIES OF THE GRID IN THE EMPIRE CITY, 1811–2011

Authors


  • This research was supported by the Environmental Protection Agency's Science to Achieve Results Graduate Fellowship Program. I am very grateful to Craig Colten, the anonymous reviewers, and Margo Huxley for their constructive suggestions to improve this article. The current study had its beginnings in my master's thesis, “Rationalizing the Landscape: Superimposing the Grid upon the Island of Manhattan” (2002), and I benefited considerably from useful feedback on this earlier incarnation of the current research project provided by James McCarthy, Andrew Sluyter, Roger Downs, Eugene Moehring, Rebecca Shanor, and Marguerite Holloway. The usual disclaimers apply with respect to any errors that appear in the pages that follow.

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.

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