Thursday, April 12, 2012

Breaking the grid

While in New York City this past weekend I had the chance to the see the 8-foot-long, hand-drawn plan adopted by the Commissioners exactly 200 years ago for the future development of the city. The map (a portion of which is shown above) is the centerpiece of an exhibit called "The Greatest Grid" at the Museum of the City of New York.

The colonial and post-Revolutionary city had developed more or less willy-nilly at the southern end of Manhattan Island. The new plan called for a rigid grid of north-south avenues and east-west streets embracing the rest of the island. Numbered avenues. Numbered streets. A grid that made no concessions to nature -- not to topography, nor watercourses, nor shorelines, nor field or forest. An assertion of utter and paramount human dominion. Of rectangular efficiency. Of economic reductionism. Nature was not consulted.

And so it was. And so it is. With few exceptions.

The ancient Native American trail that traversed the island north to south managed to resist the grid to become the diagonally-slicing boulevard known today as Broadway. This defiance of rectangularity gave the city some of its liveliest spaces, most prominently Times Square. Times Square throbs with human excitement, but -- nature? -- you'd be hard pressed to find so much as a dandelion sprouting from a crack.

The great miracle of Manhattan is the gaping hole in the grid, that vast living lung which is Central Park, completed in 1857, Frederick Law Olmsted's brilliant acknowledgement that nature has something to teach us, even about what it means to be civilized. To be sure, Central Park is a mammoth work of human design and engineering, but to his credit Olmstead worked on a canvas that was nature as he found it. It was not wilderness he gave us, but wilderness transformed by conscious spirit.

To step out of the grid for a walk in the park, as I did this past Sunday, is to be reminded that, body and soul, we are organic beings who will only thrive and prosper in the future if we can carry with us some measure of the organic milieu that gave us birth -- nature embellished by human art and artifice.