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City on a Grid: How New York Became New York Hardcover – November 10, 2015

4.1 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Review

Advance Praise for City on a Grid

Kate Ascher, author of The Works: Anatomy of a City
"Rarely does one come across a book that makes you rethink the city you thought you knew.... Koeppel's masterful story-telling does that and more."

Justin Martin, author of books about a pair of New York eminences, Walt Whitman and Frederick Law Olmsted
"If Manhattan has a subconscious, it's the angular numbered street plan that, for two centuries, has informed the island's destiny. Koeppel does a masterful job of telling the little-known story behind this humble yet hallowed grid. Along the way, he introduces a vivid cast of characters and spins some lively anecdotes. A thoroughly enjoyable read, and one that will cause you to view Manhattan with fresh eyes."

David Duchovny, actor, author, native New Yorker
"I've spent most of my life walking the straight lines of the world's greatest city and have never thought to ask: Is this a different shape from other cities, and if so, why, and who did it? Koeppel's book answers these questions, in an easygoing, good-humored manner, with interesting facts unearthed on nearly every page. This is one of those books you always wished would be written, and here it is. Indispensable for anyone interested in the history of New York and cities generally, and bound to fuel cocktail conversations up, down, and across the city for years to come."

Kirkus Reviews, 8/15/15
"For Manhattanites, surely, and for anyone who's visited and been either charmed or overwhelmed by the grid.”

Publishers Weekly, 9/14/15
“A look at the story behind the development of New York City’s extraordinary 1811 street grid plan, which ‘defined the urbanism of a rising city and nation.’…[An] expert investigation into what made the city special…Koeppel’s bold commentary on the constant evolution of Gotham may stir controversy in some quarters, but he unabashedly celebrates the metropolis that has never learned what it means to grow old or stale.”

The New Yorker, 10/5/15
"Tells the too little-known tale of how and why Manhattan came to be the waffle-board city we know."

Library Journal, 9/18/15
“Readers curious about the growth of infrastructure in large city centers will definitely be interested in Koeppel’s take.”

Internet Review of Books, 11/6/15
“How can anybody have anything much to say, much less anything interesting, about a batch of horizontal and vertical lines? Turns out, there’s quite a lot to say—and—it’s interesting!”

Open Letters Monthly, 11/6/15
“Anyone who’s ever spent any substantial amount of time in Manhattan has personally, viscerally felt the subject of Gerard Koeppel’s new book City on a Grid…As Koeppel points out, nobody has written about the grid before. But what it lacks in antecedents, City on a Grid makes up in sheer zest of storytelling…The history uncovered and explored in these pages is uniformly fascinating, but the real high point of City on a Grid is Koeppel’s meditation on what a grid arrangement means at its heart…Anyone who’s ever felt the grid slowly clarifying inside their own head should read this fantastic book and find out how it all came to be.”

PopMatters.com, 11/9/15
“Koeppel brings a disarming wit…Keeping the narrative light on its feet and keeping his targets well within range, Koeppel resists the urge of too many modern historians to inflate their topic.”

The Bookworm Sez, 11/10/15
“A must-give…It’s the story of how the City That Never Sleeps became what it is; specifically, how swampy fields—a farming area, basically—became the Big Apple in only a few centuries.”

Manhattan User’s Guide, 11/11/15
“Makes the clear-cut case that—whether you like the grid or not—it has more daily impact on millions of people than almost any other urban plan you can name.”

New York Journal of Books, 12/1/15
“A fascinating and curious story that takes us back through time to the early beginnings of the city…It is also a drama that delves into the lives and travails of the original surveyors…who mapped the island and saw it not for the city that it was, but the metropolis that it would become…A well-researched ambitious tale of intrigue intertwined with political significance…Koeppel tantalizes with little known facts…A fun, fascinating, and accessible read for those curious enough to delve into the origins of an amazing city.”

Under the Radar, 12/4/15
“Read City on a Grid as a technical how to (or how not to) on urban planning. Read it as a tale of our forefathers. Read it as a morality tale, emblematic of how we as a nation have put money, caste, and power before beauty, skill, and efficiency.”

InfoDad blog, 11/25/15
“[Koeppel’s] book is a history lesson, which is all to the good…Readers who share Koeppel’s relishing of the ins and outs of this subject will find his narrative compelling…New York likes to think of itself as the trendsetter for the United States, and Koeppel’s book shows that to be true in important ways where urban design is concerned…Koeppel clearly loves New York, but is honest enough to detail both the pluses and minuses of the design that, as his subtitle indicates, made Manhattan what it is today.”

New York Times, 12/13/15
“Prodigiously researched…Koeppel [is] an engaging storyteller.”

Wall Street Journal, 12/13/15
“Koeppel’s ventures into early-19th-century political malfeasance are intriguing…[His] narrative is breezy and highly readable.”

Planetizen, 12/12/15, “Top 10 Books of 2015”
“New York City has a large number of urban obsessives—people who hoard information about the city's every block, neighborhood, street, and building. City on a Grid is a book by one of those people, and for all of those people…With such a complete telling of the grid's history of surveys, plans, politics, and designs, it could be that Koeppel has left very little for future historians of the grid to relate to readers.
The grid of New York, as the book shows, is a captivating and deeply rich subject.”

News @ Wesleyan, 12/10/15
“Readers who are fans of urban history and planning or have a particular interest in New York should find City on a Grid by Gerard Koeppel ’79 a fascinating read.”

ProtoView, 12/17/15
“A specialty book on New York City for general readers…The author writes with obvious affection for the city.”

Milwaukee Shepherd-Express, 12/15/15
“Koeppel brings poetry to a seemingly prosaic topic, rejoicing over every numbered avenue that gained a name and wondering whether the city’s spirit of rationalism will gradually make way for a more organic way of life.”

The Bowery Boys, 12/22/15, “Ten Favorite New York City History Books of 2015”
“Koeppel takes us into the motivations for creating this mighty, orderly system and the methods in which they were plowed—sometimes violently—through the topography of New York. Even its imperfections (like that original lack of a large open space) are fascinatingly told here.”

New York Times Book Review, 1/10/16
“The best account to date of the process by which an odd amalgamation of democracy and capitalism got written into New York’s physical DNA.”

Washington Book Review, 1/5/16
“Koeppel explains the history of New York like nobody has done before…A fascinating and unique read…A must read for every New Yorker and anyone who loves New York.”

Wesleyan University, “Roth on Wesleyan” blog, 1/12/16
“[A] fascinating book…[Koeppel’s] understanding of New York’s gridded past should inform any plans to create a more sustainable city for tomorrow.”

Roanoke Times, 1/17/16
“Koeppel is the very best sort of writer for this sort of history. The book is chock-a-block with stories about New York City…Koeppel’s style is entertaining with clever plays on words and inventive descriptions, and his treatment of New York history betrays his love for the city. By extension, this wonderful story has relevance to most U.S. cities…Koeppel puts us in touch with our financial and cultural roots by following the birth of urban planning and providing a glimpse into how New York’s urban planning became a blueprint for cities across the nation.”

San Francisco Book Review, 1/21/16
“New Yorkers will likely relate to the entire book, but readers interested in the effects of urbanization anywhere will find the latter chapters of the book meaningful.”

Portland Book Review, 1/25/16
“An engaging account…Koeppel takes the reader on a historic journey through the early beginnings of New York, when there were literally no streets and little to no understanding of how to move forward. In order to make sense of it all, Koeppel has had to dig deep in piecing together this relative untold story, unearthing captivating facts and stories that not only bring to life the New York grid system and its origins but also the characters that built it…A fascinating book in understanding the history of the grid system, why it’s the way that it is, and its role in helping shape New York into the incredible city that we know today.”

Midwest Book Review, February 2016
“With its powerful survey of the politics, urban planning issues, city-building approaches, and social atmosphere of its times, City on a Grid is not only a 'must' for any interested in how New York evolved, but for any with a special interest in urban planning history.”

Phi Beta Kappa’s The Key Reporter, 3/8/16
"Paul Goodman, America’s own grand and innovative social thinker…called for a new genre of letters, one that City on a Grid will augment—the urban pastoral, celebrating the infrastructure of the city such as its methods of transportation and building while reminding us of its dependency on the majesty of nature.”

About the Author

Gerard Koeppel is the author of Bond of Union: Building the Erie Canal and the American Empire and Water for Gotham: A History. He has contributed to numerous other books, including the Encyclopedia of New York City, of which he was an associate editor. Before writing mostly about the past, he wrote, edited, and produced the present at CBS News. He was born on the grid and has lived all over it since.
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Da Capo Press (November 10, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0306822849
  • ISBN-13: 978-0306822841
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.1 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #74,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By P. Johnson on December 27, 2015
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I am engrossed in this book. I thought I was fairly knowledgeable about NYC, but this is a whole different angle, if you will. Gerald Koeppel really alters your view of the city and provides fascinating stories about how the city has grown from "villages" to the grid. His voice is really entertaining, too--it's like being with a great tour guide, bringing it all to life for you.
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Full disclosure, I'm not a New Yorker. Although I visit Manhattan about twice a year, I'm not as familiar with the city and the grid as many would-be readers might be. That said, I found this book fascinating but also very frustrating. Clearly, the author has done his homework. He tells us that there is no other book on this subject, and there's no reason to doubt that, so if the subject interests you, buy it. There are a lot of interesting stories and anecdotes, and it's a great primer on urban planning, do's and don'ts. It's also a good reminder that the failure and corruption of government have always been around. Nevertheless, the lack of maps and illustrations made it frequently frustrating for me. The author describes how things changed in certain areas, but I wanted to see maps that clearly illustrated what he was saying. Yes, there is a section of maps and illustrations, but many are extremely small. The historical maps are hard to read, and I wish they had been augmented with redrawn versions that were more readable. It would have been nice to have a series of maps, all the same scale and orientation, to show the changes in certain areas. A documentary film might be a better medium to present this information, so let's hope it comes to the attention of Ric Burns or New York's PBS channel. So -- bottom line, it's worth reading, but a book focused on how the concept of a grid transformed an island really should have more maps.
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I'm an infrequent reader of non-fiction, but having completed this book on New Year's eve I can't think of any book I've enjoyed as much in 2015. While the central story is engrossing with many more historical surprises than I expected, the author's frequent digressions are equally interesting and entertaining. The few but carefully-chosen illustrations beautifully augment the text, and several of the photographs are astonishing - who would have believed that streets were literally bulldozed through hills leaving early homes sitting precariously on newly-formed precipices. Only in New York!
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Guaranteed--your experience of walking New York's streets will never be quite the same after reading this book. A deeply scholarly but wittily irreverent account of what many regard to have been the worst decision in the city's history--the adoption of its relentless, hyper-regular grid pattern of streets.
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Nobody knows about how New York became a gridded city. Gerard Koeppel gives us a vivid description of how it probably happened. More than that he makes a powerful argument for an alternate city plan than the grid. It is a wonderful book about how New York became New York.
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To quote Loudon Wainwright III " there's all kinds of cities that I've rambled around but New York, New York now there's a hell of a town...."
And it is and here's your chance of finding out geographically and grid-wise how it got to be the way it is. Koeppel's Gridation is a well researched, amusing and easy read that bowls the reader along through the history of it all. Divided we grid. Throughly recommend it.
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This book reads like a rich history, travelog and thriller all in one. Deep and colorful, fascinating and full of surprises. While Koeppel has obviously done a tremendous amount of scholarly research, his prose is smooth and accessible and the result is a delightful page turner that will forever change the way you look at New York, America, and perhaps even yourself.
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