Straight as an arrow: triptych along Lake Shore Drive, Chicago
Last year, Manhattan celebrated the 200th anniversary of its vaunted grid street system, the rectilinear net that stretches from First Street in what’s now the East Village to 155th, in Washington Heights. And any assumption this was too dry a subject for most New Yorkers could have been dispelled by the thickness of the crowds browsing “The Greatest Grid“. The still-ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York which examines street patterns in the city past and present, and, with a number of (mostly outlandish) proposals from architectural studios and planners, future.
The exhibit lingers not only on the planning and implementation of the New York grid, but also its many detractors — the property interests, real estate developers, planners, and landscape architects who sought to interrupt and impede Manhattan’s monotonous future as a flattened island dominated by identical, rectangular blocks — and the effects of their opposition. Avenues were inserted midblock when city leaders realized that facilitating north-south traffic would prove more vital to the city’s future than ensuring easy crosstown access between rivers. Broadway’s anomalous, diagonal swath was retained, the points where it awkwardly intersected with the grid turned into parks and squares. A vast portion of the grid was interrupted for the creation of Central Park.
Baseball diamond tic-tac-toe in Lake Shore Park
Above 155th Street, in particular, a new generation of Romantic planners created a very different Manhattan that respected the island’s original, hilly topography, and complemented it with looping, serpentine streets. Upper Manhattan became a mirror image of the chaotic, colonial streets that characterized the island’s original settlement, at its lower tip, and the closest approximation of pre-grid plans for the city, like the one formulated by Joseph Mangin and Casimir Goerck, which respected property lines far more than it had geometric rigors.
Both aesthetically and philosophically, the grid had chafed at Gilded Age New York, and in particular its high society’s pretensions to be living in city that could equal the capitals of Europe, where avenues headed by monumental governmental, cultural, or religious structures were elegantly expressed the notion that mere business was subordinate to civic institutions. But the attractions of the less hierarchical, more “democratic” grid were embraced more wholeheartedly in the country’s interior. The Land Ordinance of 1785 had imposed a grid system far more dramatic than New York’s — on what would become the entire Upper Midwest. At its heart was Chicago, a city that would far more enthusiastically embrace the right angle than even its most eager proponents in New York.
Take a look at a map of Shanghai and it still jumps out at you — a tightly-wound ball of narrow streets threading through warrens of centuries-old houses. Call it what you will — the neighborhood seems to have no standard English name, and “Old City,” “Round City,” or simply “Old Shanghai” have been used before — but it’s impossible to deny this slice of China’s largest city stands a bit aloof; what’s left of it appears to exist in total defiance of a metropolis that appears ceaselessly hungry for towers that soar high enough to match the gaping width of its newly-broadened boulevards.
Old Shanghai’s uniqueness is a longstanding trend; the last time the neighborhood didn’t buck the rest of the city’s form was during the Middle Ages, when the Round City was Shanghai — a fledgling Ming Dynasty port. But skip forward to the 19th century and Shanghai has grown to become the hub of foreign commerce in China, its cityscape defined by the architecture the colonial powers have brought to their respective concessions — tiny fiefdoms run by local Westerners nominally reporting to overseas capitals.
Somewhat like Hong Hong’s Kowloon Walled City nearly a century later, the Old City, or “Chinese City,” as it began, then, to be called, remained an enclave within these enclaves, a densely-packed and ghettoized dormitory for much of the city’s local workforce. It even remained behind literal, medieval walls — until, during China’s 1911 revolution, they finally came crashing down.
Election results in Toronto in 2008 (top) and 2011 (bottom)
Red is Liberal, blue is Conservative, orange is NDP
Canada held its 41st federal election on Monday and the results have unleashed a seismic shift in the country’s political landscape. After two consecutive minority governments, the Conservatives have now won a majority. The left-wing NDP, a marginal party for much of its existence (it ran fifth for most of the 1990s), is now the Official Opposition.
Much attention is being paid to the massive surge of support for the NDP, especially in Quebec, where two decades of dominance by the Bloc fell victim to the “Orange Crush.” But Quebec is prone to political mood swings, and even as an NDP supporter, I’m sceptical that they will be able to maintain their current level of support until the next election. What I find especially remarkable about this election is the near-collapse of the Liberal Party — and the political rise of the ethnoburbs.
Take a look at electoral map of Greater Toronto. Red has given way to blue in virtually all of its fast-growing, immigrant-dominated, ethnically-diverse suburban areas. Losing these ridings is what pushed the Liberals to the edge of oblivion. “Of the 18 seats they gained in that region, 14 are more than 45 per cent immigrant, and most would not long ago have been considered un-winnable for the Conservatives,” notes the Globe and Mail.
In other words, the Canadian election was fought and won in ethnoburbia, the suburban immigrant enclaves first identified in 1997 by the geographer Wei Li. Ethnoburbs are socially and culturally self-contained, but unlike the urban ethnic enclaves of decades past, they are also prosperous and extensively connected to transnational networks. Their affluence and influence have given them enormous political leverage.
Canada is in the midst of yet another federal election, one that will, if the current trends hold steady, result in a third minority government for Stephen Harper’s Conservatives. It’s a pretty dismal state of affairs. But even the most delicious truffle looks like a turd, so things might still turn out well, especially if Canadians finally wake up and grow tired of having a petty tyrant as prime minister.
In the meantime, my friend Cedric Sam has created a pretty good way to kill time: Google Maps of 2008 federal election results based on data from each and every polling station in the country. Since each polling station serves no more than a few hundred voters, the level of detail is extraordinarily precise, especially in dense urban areas. You can check it out at the website of the Montreal newspaper La Presse, which has published the maps in English.
Sometimes the maps can be surprising. Who knew that the well-heeled streets of Outremont held so many NDP supporters, while the immigrant-dominated, working-class north end of Côte des Neiges was so heavily Liberal? Other times, it looks exactly the way you would expect: in Edmonton Strathcona, the densely-populated streets around Whyte Avenue and the University of Alberta voted NDP, while more suburban areas to the south and east voted Conservative. (The NDP won in both Outremont and Edmonton Strathcona.)
The original, ca. 1800 Mangin-Goerck Plan (top) and part of the Commissioners’ Plan of 1811, as engraved by William Bridges
Last month, New York celebrated the bicentennial of one of its most iconic works of engineering and urban design — Manhattan’s grid. The 1811 street layout was officially known as the Commissioners’ Plan, but its execution is really owed to John Randel, Jr., the plan’s chief surveyor and engineer, who endured — and persevered through — endless legal and physical challenges to imprinting his vision on what was, north of the burgeoning city, a wild, hilly, watery island.
Randel’s difficult (and often amusing) travails have been widely recounted elsewhere: he was, among other things, pelted with vegetables and even arrested for trespass in the course of carrying out the Commissioners’ scheme, which involved seizing property and, in the course of leveling hillsides, leaving some houses stranded on bluffs along his new avenues. The New York Times has a colorful story about him as part of a larger feature celebrating the grid — which, the paper proclaimed, had easily stood the test of time.
But what if Randel had encountered more propertyholders like Henry Brevoot? His obstinant refusal to part with his estate means that, to this day, you can’t walk the length of 11th Street uninterrupted — it doesn’t run between Broadway and Fourth Ave. Or what if the considerable engineering challenges his project faced — eight million cubic yards of dirt had to be moved from the future west side to fill in the valleys of the future east — simply couldn’t be overcome, either physically or financially?
There’s been plenty of aimless speculation over centuries as to what Manhattan would look like sans grid. Among the more tongue-in-cheek illustrations were Charles-Antoine Perrault and Alex Wallach’s views of what the island would look like if crisscrossed not by its grid, but by Paris’ medieval streets and strident boulevards. Cutting and pasting the Left Bank from one Google Earth grid to another didn’t exactly make for a perfect fit, but the idea that a gridless Manhattan may have developed in a similarly piecemeal, haphazard fashion — as it had, with farmers subdividing their land into individual, poorly meshing grids, until 1811 — makes sense.
But there was at least one serious master plan for Manhattan that predated the Commissioners’. Surviving in only a few rare maps (themselves mostly reproductions), it demonstrates that, had the Commissioners’ Plan not prevailed, New York could have been a considerably different place today.
Google Street View has landed in Brazil, and its timing is probably no accident: it’s a momentous point in the country’s history. Latin America’s sleeping giant seems, at last, to be climbing into its proper place in the global pecking order: it’s an increasingly assertive diplomatic force that’s put the B in the rising “BRIC” countries and wooed the world to become the future site of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. All that means Brazil will be the focus of intense scrutiny over the next decade, no more so than in its cities, whose violent reputation might be the most jarring objection to the narrative that the country’s trajectory is is headed nowhere but up.
Such is the bilious stereotype of Brazil’s urban barrios that even intrepid street photographers often refrain from unsheathing their SLRs even a block or two from the most upscale streets or highly visited tourist attractions. For virtual investigators, armchair travelers and Firefox flaneurs alike, that opens up a lot of virgin territory to explore via Street View. Take one of Brazil’s most celebrated neighborhoods, Rio’s Ipanema. It’s renown worldwide for its beach scene, but also boasts largely blocks of rarely-documented inland avenues.
I’d pointed my browser only a few blocks from the the virtual beach, on a digitized representation of Rua Visc. de Paraja, when I made my first Brazilian Street View discovery: colorfully pink and blue intersections, which look like tropicalized versions of the scramble crossings common to the busiest corners of Tokyo. Coming across these flamingo-hued florescent bursts helped convince me that Street View might be as adept at validating positive stereotypes of a colorful, festive Brazil as it is said to have been in disproving negative ones faced by other societies — like South Africa, where Street View was also unveiled in time for a World Cup — which the media similarly allows to appear locked in a desperate struggle with urban violence and destitution.
But it’s important not to take a too-naive view of Street View, which, like any recording or imaging technology, inevitably somewhat distorts its subject. Street View’s format — static images taken from a slightly elevated perspective in the middle of the street, make it easier to disregard some of the country’s most persistent urban problems. That’s likely true for many of the developing countries increasingly cruised by Google’s cars. Via Street View, it’s simply easier to stroll (or rather, scroll) through what might otherwise be unease-inducing neighborhoods filled with less than friendly sights, sounds, and smells — and the often distinct impression of being unwelcome. For these very same reasons, though, the technology helps virtual visitors ignore or deny evidence of the root issues that lead to such shocking material and social divides.
Four decades have passed since the end of formal racial segregation in the United States, but as anyone can tell you, informal segregation remains a part of everyday life in many areas of the country. That becomes especially clear when you look at Eric Fischer‘s new maps of race and ethnicity in major American cities. In each of these new maps, one dot represents 25 people, and each dot’s colour represents a racial or ethnic group as defined by the US Census: non-Hispanic white is red, black is blue, Hispanic is orange and Asian is green.
Every city in the world is divided along some lines, be they ethnic, linguistic or economic, but what is shocking about Fischer’s maps is how many American cities remain starkly divided according to race. Just look at Detroit, where 8 Mile Road is visible not only as the border between city and suburbs but as the line of demarcation between black and white.
(Along with ethnicity, the maps also illustrate population density — the more densely-populated an area, the more opaque it appears on the map. What surprises me about the Detroit map, along with the starkness of the city’s racial divide, is how the city proper remains just as dense as the suburbs, despite massive depopulation.)
Virtual World: The future of China’s largest city is on bombastic display at the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Centre
Set in the seclusion of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park, well inside the largest of New York’s outer boroughs, the Queens Museum of Art doesn’t attract the same blockbuster number of international visitors as the megamuseums and power galleries of Manhattan. That hardly means it fails to draw from cosmopolitan sources — in a borough as diverse as Queens, appealing to the local population means displaying art that speaks to many points of origin. But the museum is best known for a work of very local significance: the Panorama of the City of New York, a vast scale model of the five boroughs built on Robert Moses’ orders for the 1964 World’s Fair.
Despite an occasional lack of updates — including one twenty-some year gap — the Panorama has been kept fairly timely. Though the last comprehensive upgrade took place in 1992, sponsors can now adopt buildings and ensure the accuracy of a given plot on the map. There are some exceptions where updates are off limits; the museum preferred the World Trade Center towers remain standing rather than represent Ground Zero (they will be replaced when the new site’s new towers are completed). But by and large, the model is a decent representation of the city — precise enough to use for mapping geodata.
Last year, urban planner and artist Damon Rich did just that, taking advantage of the Panorama to detail the extent of home foreclosures in New York. Reasoning that, for many New Yorkers, the foreclosure crisis appeared to be something taking place in far-flung Sunbelt suburbs, his aim was to bring the extent of the national real estate debacle home to a city that didn’t yet seem to realize the problem had reached its front stoop.
We’ve always known there is a gulf between the city as experienced by tourists and the city lived in by locals. Now we have a fun visual representation of that divide. Using various types of data from Flickr, one user of the photo-sharing website, Eric Fisher, has created maps that indicate the spots photographed by tourists and those shot by locals. Local photographs are blue, tourist photos red and undetermined photos yellow.
There are some problems in the methodology. Whether a Flickr user is a local or a tourist is determined by whether they photograph a given location over a long period of time (like a local would) or in just a few days (like a tourist would). That seems fair enough, but not everyone geotags their photos, which could possibly skew the results one way or another. One person who obsessive geotags all of his or her photos could have a disproportionately large representation on the map. You can see this in Vancouver, where one person’s geotagged cycle routes are prominently displayed.
Still, just by looking at the maps you get a strong intuitive sense that they are close to reality. In the Montreal map, tourists overwhelmingly stick to Old Montreal, St. Joseph’s Oratory and the Olympic Stadium while locals take photos throughout downtown and the Plateau, with an especially notable cluster of local shots around Lafontaine Park, Maisonneuve Park and the Botanical Gardens (which, interestingly enough, are right across the street from the Olympic tourist hub).
To earn their hackney license, London’s taxi drivers must all famously master “The Knowledge,” a vast compilation of raw data about the best routes through the city’s streets. The memorization process takes an average of 34 months to study — and 12 attempts to pass. That means it’s a safe bet few licensed London cabbies are ever lost, and — since they’re also immune from central London’s congestion charge or from restrictions on private vehicles in places like busy Oxford Street — the patterns driven by the city’s trademark black cabs probably reflect the overall distribution of street traffic in the British capital better than any other proxy.
Part of the BBC’s visually absorbing Britain from Above series, which also includes this mesmerizing time-lapse of Britain’s busiest rail station, the video above examines the patterns tread by London’s taxis over the course of a day by combining GPS data about their location with satellite imagery of the city, telling the story of Londoners’ movements by tracing their routes in light.
Last year, after returning from Montreal, I posted about a Mile End alley with a strange name that doesn’t appear anywhere in the city’s official toponymical records. Nobody has yet come forward with an answer as to how Swiss Lane got its name, but one Flickr user, DubyDub2009, did a bit of extra research and found that Swiss Lane used to be even longer than it is today.
In a map dated 1949, Swiss Lane is shown running two blocks, from St. Dominique to de Gaspé. Today it runs only between St. Dom and Casgrain. At some point, probably in the 1950s, a small factory was built on the lane’s eastern half. But the street signs were never changed to reflect this fact, so the one sign of Swiss Lane’s existence still points towards the long-vanished eastern part of the alley.
Satellite views of California City (above) and Lehigh Acres (below) from Google Maps
The world is filled with mad dreams only partly come to life. In Eastern Europe, half-built skyscrapers that neither communist governments nor their free market-friendly successors could complete form ironic landmarks, totems of ideological overconfidence. In China’s Inner Mongolia province, authorities built a whole city to boost the country’s GDP — that no one could afford to live in. And vast, empty grids etch the surface of the United States: the hidden ruins of capitalism’s most spectacular failures.
Fly out of Fort Myers at dusk, catching the glint of the setting sun on the vast grid of streets stretching across the marshlands to its east and you may come to understand the level of ambition that led the airport you just left to be grandly styled “Southwest Florida International”. This is Lehigh Acres, quickly becoming America’s most notorious — if not its first — suburban ghost town.
Paths in snow, on the beach and across fields show how people seem unable to walk straight even when they have a clear shot at where they’re going.
People don’t walk straight. Not only do they take short cuts when they can, they avoid trees, rocks and uneven places. The streets in old cities and towns reflect that meandering, but between the beginning of the 19th century and suburban developments in the middle of the 20th century, cities used right-angled street grids in their urban plans almost exclusively. It’s only where the grid met pre-existing footpaths that we can see evidence today of a time when walking feet determined where roads went.
One of the first attempts at “rational” planning began in 1803 when New York’s City Commissioners decided to survey Manhattan and bring order to the hodge-podge of grids that had been laid out along the island’s shorelines. Not much could be done about the earlier patterns, but they were integrated into a huge master plan which would not be completely built up for nearly 150 years. The chief exception to straight streets and right angles came when the commissioners recognized they had to include some footpaths used for centuries by Amerindians. The shortcuts and trails had become major thoroughfares, the most famous being the one running diagonally across the island and now known as Broadway.
While harbour reclamation has made Yau Ma Tei a landlocked neighbourhood, it began life as a waterfront village, with a large Tin Hau temple serving as a hub for trade and activity. When the British gained control of Kowloon in 1860, it laid a grid of mostly numbered streets through Yau Ma Tei. Most of these streets had counterparts on Hong Kong Island, but it wasn’t an issue until the early twentieth century, when Kowloon began to develop in earnest. In 1909, the colonial government formed a committee to rename the streets, which resulted in the interesting assortment of names that still exist today.
Most newer Chinese cities have streets named after other parts of China: massage touts and neon signs compete for attention on Shanghai’s Nanjing Road, some of Taipei’s best coffee can be found on Chengdu Road and Chongqing Road is where all the action is in rustbelt Changchun. With the renaming of Yau Ma Tei’s streets, Hong Kong proved no exception — but what makes it unique is that those streets were named by the British after important treaty ports and British-influenced parts of China. What’s more, their romanized versions are based on Cantonese rather than Mandarin. Canton Road was named for Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong; Woosung Street for Wusong, a trading hub near Shanghai; and Pak Hoi Street for Beihai, a Cantonese-speaking port in Guangxi.