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The Old Urbanism (1.5)

Several years ago, as a grad student in American History, one of my seminars required a paper on American history prior to 1850. Happily for me, that precluded the Civil War, which, along with most other wars, is of very little interest to me. In consultation with the instructor Cathy Matson, we settled on something involving Philadelphia, being one of the few urban areas nearby with a significant amount of unpublished historical material. As I’ve written here before, the initial topic was interesting but probably not going anywhere worthwhile, so it morphed into a study of the Thomas Holmes plan for Philadelphia of 1683.

Among the several things that have been written about old Philadelphia — essentially between South and Vine streets and running between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers — its cartesian grid is guilty of being boring. One of my discoveries put that popular conception to rest; it is, in fact, a highly articulated pattern and surprisingly mathematical. But back to the boredom.

Even the most rudimentary of urban grids has texture. Its blocks are divided into lots which almost invariably run N-S or E-W, such that street corners favor one of the intersecting rights-of-way and one of those streets will be more active than its right-angled counterpart: You are either looking at the front of a building or its side elevation. In the case of my own city, its principle thoroughfares run east-west, and consequentially its business fronts face north or south. Observing the revitalization of the CBD during the past twenty-five years I’ve developed an informal theory that south-facing business fronts are more likely to rent than those which face north and, therefore get very little natural light. Couple that with the current preference for darkened glass windows and the prevalence for neon “OPEN” signs makes sense.

Whether that observation was part of my thinking in creating the Agincourt townsite, Broad Street avoids that issue because all of its businesses face either east or west. The few stores around the corners on the avenues are minimized. So when I run across postcard views like this¹, I get excited because they’re fair game for conscription into the project.

The scale and stylistic “age” of these stores suggest construction in the 1880s — notice the 1877 date in one pediment — and, perhaps, on the “poorer” end of Broad Street [that being another aspect of gridded townsites: there is a “right” and “wrong” side of the tracks, but that’s a story for another time]. Happily, this card isn’t cluttered with labelling, so I can adapt it with impunity for our purposes.

¹ The town is Brainerd, Nebraska, and is currently being auctioned off at an opening bid of $42.00, far too rich for my pocketbook.

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