On March 28, Battery Park City Parks’ Winter Talks series concluded with its final speaker, Gerard Koeppel, who related a unique account of New York City based on his book, City on a Grid: How New York Became New York. A graduate of Wesleyan University, Mr. Koeppel is an American author and historian who has focused much of his research on New York infrastructure. City on a Grid is the latest of his three books, the first two being Water for Gotham: A History and Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Nation.
More than two dozen attendees gathered at 6 River Terrace on a rainy Tuesday for Mr. Koeppel’s session, who began his talk with a history of Manhattan’s landscape. He unfolded an intriguing tale detailing the creation, in 1807, of a state-appointed commission to plan the future streets of Manhattan, which gave an extensive grant of power to three men–none of whom lived in New York City nor liked it very much!
The highlight of Koeppel’s talk was his key argument: dispelling the notion that Manhattan’s grid was “conceived in greatness.” The grid’s qualities of rationality which many have come to praise cannot, according to Koeppel, be credited to the architects of the plan. Rather, the plan was a poor execution of a stolen design, presented by three men who were unenthused and uninspired. The poor execution is emphasized by the plan’s ignorance of the city’s physical and social topography, as hills were dumped into valleys and property lines ignored to implement the design.
Accompanied by compelling photos and dynamic quotes from writers, poets, and politicians, Koeppel’s talk synthesized the history of Manhattan’s rectilinear design in an intriguing, witty and humorous way. The audience’s engagement was evident in the lengthy Q&A session following the talk, as audience members were left to decide for themselves whether the grid is the fiercely rational, efficient plan its architects thought, or the monotonous creation of unimaginative commissioners fixated on what was cheap and easy.
Though this was the last of this year’s Winter Talks series, be sure to keep up-to-date on Battery Park City Parks’ event calendar and newsletter to find out what else is going on in the neighborhood! The winter calendar can be found here—the summer programming calendar will be released by mid-April—and the monthly newsletters can be found on the BPCA blog.
City on a Grid: How New York Became New York, is set for release in paperback on April 4 from Da Capo Press.
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