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23 TIGHTENING UP Most American cities started with a compact layout. Usually it was the maligned grid, with blocks in the range of two hundred by three hundred feet. As many cities are coming to believe, they were right the first time. The tight grid and short blocks may be rigid, but the pattern maximizes pedestrian activity, and it provides many of those best of spaces, street corners. Grids often run counter to the topography, and due to the accidents of early settlement patterns there are sometimes two grids: one going one way, one going another. In what may have been a case of a drunken surveyor, a Southern city has two parallel streets that come to a point. It is the property of a grid to make departures from it interesting. William Penn's Philadelphia is a model of symmetry, with four public squares equidistant from each other. But among the features that are so liked today is a great diagonal cut through the grid for a City Beautiful-movement parkway. Also liked are the parts of the grid that should be clearly obsolete: the very narrow streets and alleys south of Market. They make a fine pedestrian area. The board of commissioners that plotted the island of Manhattan in 1807 liked the grid. They explicitly rejected ovals or circles or other fancy European modes. They said the important thing was to stimulate commercial development, and the pattern that was best for that was the grid. So they laid out a grid, and virtually all grid too, there being little provision for parks or public squares. These had to come later. But the commissioners did fasten on one felicitous touch. Most [318] CITY grids have been based on the points of the compass. Not Manhattan's. The island runs on a bit of a slant. The commissioners wanted to maximize the development potential, a tendency still very much alive today. So they fitted their grid to the slant, not to the compass. As a result, the supposed north of the city's north-south avenues is actually twenty-nine degrees east of true north. It so happens that this is near ideal for letting the sun fall on three exposures, including about an hour and a quarter of sun early mornings on northern facades. Generations of brownstone dwellers have been in the commissioners' debt. San Francisco is another example. As has been frequently observed , they were out of their minds to lay a grid on top of this hilly place. But it seemed to work, and when earthquake and fire leveled the city they went right back to the grid. It still seems to work. It is not the grid, however, that is important so much as compactness . Curves and oblique angles can work as well in this respect as right angles and rectangles. The eccentric street pattern of the tip of Manhattan was laid out by the Dutch in the seventeenth century. It still works. The streets are too dark; they are too narrow. Cars have trouble negotiating them. So the cars stay away. Pedestrians dominate. On Nassau Street they more or less took over the roadway even before cars were banned. Boston is similarly perverse. If you wanted to design a street pattern for pedestrian movement you could hardly come up with anything better than the ancient twists and turns of the financial district. Ahead of their time, they tip the scales in favor of the pedestrian over the car. Bostonians are aggressive pedestrians, and when cars get slowed down on a winding street they will often bully them to a dead stop. Lately Boston has banned cars from some of its main shopping streets, and the pedestrian activity has been prodigious. But the die had already been cast. I am biased because I gew up in the area but I do think that of all centers, Philadelphia's has cohered the best. There are many possible reasons: surveyor Thomas Holmes, Edmund Bacon, the placement of the Schuylkill; whatever the cause, center city development has not been scattered, but concentrated within a two-mile rectangle, river to river. The center is precisely where it was planned to be and in the middle is the magnificent Second Empire pile of masonry that is City Hall—upstaged by a building higher than William Penn's hat, but still a compelling symbol. One thing about Philadelphia: you know where you are. Another legacy is the short block. In many U...


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