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The Origination and Mental Effects of New York’s Grid

Looking south from Union Square in 1840. ©

The Museum of the City of New York currently hosts the exhibition The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011, celebrating the 200th anniversary of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811. In this plan, a proposal was accepted to create an orderly street pattern between 14th Street and Washington Heights, regardless of the island’s shape. The exhibition shows the evolution of Manhattan’s grid using original maps, photographs and manuscripts.


When I read about the exibition, I had to think of Richard Sennett’s and other sociologists’ interpretations of the origination and implications of New York’s rational makeup (and that of other cities). Below I will discuss on some of them.

Why gridded?
According to Sennett, the combination of man’s mastery over nature and the ideology of business enterprise have created a specific shape of urban order: the grid. First, by mastery over nature (or the neutralization of space), Sennett means that humans have and use the ability to remove inconvenient parts of nature in order to create a workable landscape. This has increased over the past centuries - older cities have grown more organically (or disorderly).
Secondly, the ideology of the business enterprise influences urban design. In capitalist societies, undertaking business means that things have to be commodified in order to create exchange value. In order to commodify and exchange, goods need to be comparable. This also goes for land and buildings, which need to be shaped in a somewhat similar way in order to be comparable, supplementing and excheable (Henri Lefebvre: capitalist space has to be homogeneous and fragmented at the sime time in order to be commodifiable). An ordered, standardized physical urban pattern is the result of these mechanisms. For capitalists, it is important to divide the land and buildings in such a way, that the balance between the amount of real estate property and value per property is optimized. That is where the mastery of nature comes in, to create a gridded urban pattern in order to create equivalent commodities. Sennett, by the way, adopts relationship Max Weber sees between this business enterprise ideology and Protestantism. Protestantism equals sober living: hard working, believing and not being self-indulgent. The protestant individual is a person that does not spend a lot of money, and only spends it wisely. Accordingly, he invests in order to create more value, in order to become a ‘worthy person’ (Sennett, p.55). Sennet’s explanation is similar to the somewhat cynical arguments of Georg Simmel in his classical piece The Metropolis and Mental Life: in the end, all that urban space has to do is create exchange value.

The psyche of those that inhabit the grid
Richard Sennett argues that a gridded urban layout has psychological implications for individuals that live in it. He says that the standardized environment disorients people and makes it hard for them to establish anything of real value in an endless, mindless geometric division of space. The grid subdues and dominates individuals, creating blasé city dwellers. The blasé state of mind that Sennett describes is different from the one that the inventor of the term, Georg Simmel, talks about.

City Chaos by Gill Turner

While Sennett argues that the non-emotional individual is the result of a standardized built environment, the homogeneous grid is produced by blasé individuals, according to Simmel. He emphasizes that urban living has a significant impact on the mind of people. The high density of the city and the great dynamics of urban life in the closely compressed, rapidly changing and contrasting stimulations of the (confronting a lot of people, noise, smells, etc.). Because of the exposure to an unlimited number of stimuli, the nerves are constantly agitated and become incapable of reacting to new sensations with the required energy. The city dweller therefore stops reacting emotionally and approaches everything rationally. A consequence of this is that there is a larger development of intellectual qualities in the city. The product of this rationality is the purely intellectual individual, the individual with a blasé attitude. This emotional rationalization is accompanied by economic rationalization. Because people produce only for the market, they don’t know for who they produce. This creates an abstraction of activities. Money causes qualities to be quantified and acts as a universal equalizer, causing an indifference and all things to be perceived as meaningless. This has its implications on the urban makeup of the city: the blasé individuals create a rational environment with less and less symbolic and emotional value. The most important condition for the organization of urban space is that it is ordered in such a way that it creates the most surplus value.

These writings are just a few of many on the grid and the effects of urban space on the psyche. The intersection of sociology, geography and psychology is an interesting one to use when looking at a city. I don’t know whether people living in New York’s grid are actually more blasé than people residing in the historic core of an old city or in the countryside, but the reasoning is interesting. 

Related Posts
Richard Sennett on Quality of Life in Cities
Thinkers of Space in Their Working Spaces
Sassen & Sennett
MEGACITIES: Exploring a Sustainable Future
Cities are Attention Whores

Lefebvre, H. (2003) Space and the State. In: State/Space, A Reader.
Sennett, R. (1992) “The Grid” in The Conscience of the Eye: The Design and Social Life of Cities, pp. 46-62. New York: 
W. W. Norton & Company.
SimmelGeorg (1903) “The Metropolis and Mental Life in P. Kasinitz ed.) MetropolisCenter and Symbol of our Times. New York: NYU Press, 1995

Filed under Sennett Simmel Lefebvre New York grid economy sociology planning urbanism

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