Earlier this week, Capital New York published my review of “The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of Manhattan, 1811-2011,” an exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York.” The show is on view until April 15, an appropriate enough date given the prevalence in the galleries of tax assessments, land-sale auction handbills, and other ephemera related to the transfer of Manhattan real estate. The exhibition is accompanied by a lavishly illustrated and informative catalogue, published by Columbia University Press (Amazon, Columbia).
The plan’s Cartesian rigor made it a machine for such frenzied growth, and the exhibition contains hundreds of artifacts that chart the city’s scramble uptown. There are surveyors’ maps and tools, land-sale auctioneers’ handbills, and ledgers documenting tax assessments. Numerous photographs reveal just how much labor went in to unifying the landscape: giant boulders had to be broken up and carted away; rolling hills had to be leveled; houses perched in the middle of planned roadways had to be torn down or carted to a new location.
At the exhibit’s center is one of the three original copies of the nearly nine-foot-long map of the Commissioners’ Plan, its size and detail a measure of the ambition it represented. Generations of canny politicians, imperious real-estate developers, and visionary architects have tried to implement changes or carve out exceptions to its rule, yet the Manhattan this map depicts is recognizable to us today: a somewhat claustrophobic, undifferentiated mass of right angles that cedes almost nothing to topography or the human need for variety.
The weblog 16 Miles of String has created a new project that may prove fascinating: a Google Map “documenting the sites of performances, studios, public art installations, residences, and galleries that once existed in New York and now do not.” The list is a little thin at the moment, but they site’s proprietors are seeking suggestions and will update the map once a week. Click here for the introduction to the project and here to see the map in full on Google’s site.
Consider this post a bookmark (“book mark”?) meant to spur my own further library research.
Early in Thomas Bender’s New York Intellect: A History of Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (1987), he comments briefly on a figure previously unknown to me, Hocquet Caritat. Bender writes, “If there was any one indispensible institution in the intellectual life of New York in the 1790s, it was the bookshop tended by the French immigrant Hocquet Caritat. His bookshop brought European learning to New York; he imported the Enlightenment. His contribution to ‘the literary life of New York,’ Gilbert Chinard has rightly observed, ‘can hardly be overemphasized.’”
This is the New York of the Friendly Club, a coterie of budding intellectuals and businessmen spearheaded by Elihu Hubbard Smith. (Bryan Waterman’s Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature is on my nightstand’s to-read pile.) Smith died at twenty-seven, in 1798, and the club dissipated; Bender notes that in 1801 “Caritat tried to re-create the group … when he established a ‘Literary Assembly’ in the reading room he organized at the City Hall in association with his bookshop.” Although it never really got off the ground, it is notable that in 1803 Caritat also invited women to participate in this assembly’s activities.
According to Thomas Augst and Kenneth E. Carpenter’s Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States, by 1800, “Caritat had a library of over 3,000 volumes and a stock of books for sale or rent of over 30,000 volumes. His 1804 catalogue included almost 2,000 novels.” It was located, according to George Gates Raddin, at 93 Pearl Street, near Old-Slip, and then later moved to No. 1 City Hotel, Broadway (on the block immediately above Trinity Church). Raddin seems to be the definitive scholar of Caritat; his 1953 book The New York of Hocquet Caritat and His Associates, 1797–1817, sometimes referred to as Hocquet Caritat and the Early New York Literary Scene, seems to be the most influential single volume on the subject.
A bookseller, librarian, publisher (of Charles Brockden Brown among others), and friend to autodidacts in early New York—definitely someone to learn more about.