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‘A regular state of beautiful confusion’: governing by numbers and the contradictions of calculable space in New York City

  • REUBEN ROSE-REDWOOD (a1)
Abstract:

Historical scholarship on the spatial organization of cities has largely ignored the crucial role that house numbering has played as a political technology of spatial calculation since the eighteenth century. This article examines the spatial history of house numbering in Manhattan to illustrate how the numbering of buildings was a key strategy employed to reconfigure the city as a space of calculability. From the very outset, however, such calculable spaces of ‘number’ were riddled with contradictions, resulting in several rounds of spatial rationalization over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. More than a mere technical concern alone, the history of house numbering in New York City exemplifies the spatial politics and temporal instabilities that have shaped the spaces of calculation in the modern city.

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1 Mumford, L., The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, 1961); Reps, J., The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States (Princeton, 1965); Spann, E., ‘The greatest grid: the New York plan of 1811’, in Schaffer, D. (ed.), Two Centuries of American Planning (Baltimore, 1988), 1139; Koolhaas, R., Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York, 1994; orig. edn 1978); Scobey, D., Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia, 2002); Robbins, S. and Neuwirth, R., Mapping New York (London, 2009); Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Mythologies of the grid in the Empire City, 1811–2011’, Geographical Review, 101 (2011), 396413; Ballon, H. (ed.), The Greatest Grid: The Master Plan of New York (New York, 2012).

2 Scott, J., Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, 1998), 56.

3 Foucault, M., Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975–1976 (New York, 2003), 251; also, see Foucault, M., Security, Territory, Population, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1977–1978 (New York, 2007).

4 Curry, M., Digital Places: Living with Geographic Information Technologies (New York, 1998), 42.

5 It is worth highlighting that the notion of ‘calculation’ is conceived in broad terms here, referring not only to the traditional practices of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but also to the way in which calculative rationalities have historically rendered the world intelligible by reordering space and time according to the dictates of numerical logic.

6 Garrioch, D., ‘House names, shop signs and social organization in western European cities, 1500–1900’, Urban History, 21 (1994), 2048; Smail, D., Imaginary Cartographies: Possession and Identity in Late Medieval Marseille (Ithaca, 1999); Curry, M., Phillips, D. and Regan, P., ‘Emergency response systems and the creeping legibility of people and places’, The Information Society, 20 (2004), 357–69; Denis, V. and Milliot, V., ‘Police et identification dans la France des lumières’, Genèses, 54 (2004), 427; Thale, C., ‘Changing addresses: social conflict, civic culture, and the politics of house numbering reform in Milwaukee, 1913–1931’, Journal of Historical Geography, 33 (2007), 125–43; Rose-Redwood, R., ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community: urban house numbering, city directories, and the production of spatial legibility’, Journal of Historical Geography, 34 (2008), 286310; Tantner, A., ‘Addressing the houses: the introduction of house numbering in Europe’, Histoire & Mesure, 24 (2009), 730.

7 For a discussion of competing narrative strategies in modern historiography, see Cronon, W., ‘A place for stories: nature, history, and narrative’, Journal of American History, 78 (1992), 1347–76.

8 For a discussion of the role of ‘number’ in social and political life, see Rose, N., ‘Governing by numbers: figuring out democracy’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, 16 (1991), 673–92; Porter, T., Trust in Numbers: The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life (Princeton, 1995); Cohen, P., A Calculating People: The Spread of Numeracy in Early America (New York, 1999; orig. edn 1982); Hannah, M., Governmentality and the Mastery of Territory in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 2000); Joyce, P., The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London, 2003); Elden, S., ‘Governmentality, calculation, territory’, Environment and Planning D, 25 (2007), 562–80; Foucault, Security, Territory, Population.

9 Rose-Redwood, ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community’, 300–1.

10 Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 20.

11 Common Council of the City of New York, Minutes of the Common Council, Volume 2 (New York, 1793–1801), 52.

12 Biddle, C., The Philadelphia Directory (Philadelphia, 1791). For secondary sources, see J. Morbito, ‘Physical and social implications of street naming and house numbering systems in today's urban environment’, unpublished Michigan State University MA thesis, 1965; Alotta, R., Mermaids, Monasteries, Cherokees and Custer: The Stories behind Philadelphia Street Names (Santa Monica, 1990).

13 Hodge, R., Allen, T. and Campbell, S., The New-York Directory, and Register (New York, 1789), 144. There are very few secondary sources that document the history of house numbering in New York City. Yet, see Hoffmann, H., ‘Changed house numbers and lost street names in New York of the early nineteenth century and later’, New-York Historical Society Quarterly Bulletin, 21 (1937), 6792; J. Isaacs, ‘The history of street numbering in New York’, Real Estate News (Jan. 1940), 19 and 28; Henkin, D., City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (New York, 1998).

14 Common Council of the City of New York, Minutes of the Common Council, 57.

15 Ibid., 57 and 82.

16 Rose-Redwood, ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community’; Tantner, ‘Addressing the houses’, 7–30.

17 Longworth, D., Longworth's American Almanac, New-York Register and City Directory (New York, 1801), 321.

18 Longworth, T., Longworth's American Almanac, New-York Register and City Directory (New York, 1820), n.p.

19 Anon., ‘Numbering of streets’, New-York Evening Post (30 Jul. 1825), n.p.

20 Longworth, T., Longworth's American Almanac, New-York Register and City Directory (New York, 1829), 641–2.

21 Page, M., The Creative Destruction of Manhattan, 1900–1940 (Chicago, 1999).

22 Spann, ‘The greatest grid’; Scobey, Empire City; Rose-Redwood, ‘Mythologies of the grid in the Empire City’; Ballon (ed.), The Greatest Grid.

23 Anon., ‘House numbering’, Manhattan borough president's street index file (New York, 1838). For a discussion of ‘urban imaginaries’, see Çinar, A and Bender, T. (eds.), Urban Imaginaries: Locating the Modern City (Minneapolis, 2007); Huyssen, A., Other Cities, Other Worlds: Urban Imaginaries in a Globalizing Age (Durham, NC, 2008).

24 Rose-Redwood, ‘Indexing the great ledger of the community’, 300–1. Also, see Morbito, ‘Physical and social implications of street naming and house numbering’; Thale, ‘Changing addresses’, 125–43.

25 Valentine, D. (ed.), ‘Of numbering the streets’, in Ordinances of the Mayor, Alderman and Commonalty of the City of New York (New York, 1866), 264–5.

26 Curran, H., Report of the Business and Transactions of the President of the Borough of Manhattan (New York, 1921), 51.

27 Miller, J., Report of the Business and Transactions of the President of the Borough of Manhattan (New York, 1929).

28 B. Reinitz, ‘Elusive New York house numbers: despite a city ordinance, they are not in evidence to guide the seeker’, New York Times (10 Mar. 1929), 148.

29 M. Esterow, ‘Houses incognito keep us guessing, as they did in New York in 1845’, New York Times (24 Jan. 1952), 29.

30 Anon., ‘House-number warning’, New York Times (20 May 1957), 10.

31 Anon., ‘A Manhattan reform’, New York Times (26 Jun. 1952), 28.

32 Anon., ‘Address reforms asked by Goldman: postmaster urges new plan of numbering avenues to indicate locations’, New York Times (15 Mar. 1939), 20.

33 Anon., ‘Council ready to speed change of house numbers in Manhattan’, New York Times (11 Jan. 1940), 21.

34 Anon., ‘Proposed change in numbering of buildings fought at hearing’, New York Times (9 May 1940), 23.

35 A. Goldman, ‘Postmaster favors renumbering plan’, New York Times (16 May 1940), 21.

36 Anon., ‘Council bill rejected’, New York Times (1 Nov. 1940), 31.

37 Anon., ‘A Manhattan reform’, New York Times (26 Jun. 1952), 28.

38 R. Lyons, ‘How builders invent vanity addresses’, New York Times (22 May 1988), 434.

39 See File #2080 in the House Numbering Archive at the Manhattan Borough President's Topographical Office.

41 Lyons, ‘How builders invent vanity addresses’, 434.

42 D. Dunlap, ‘Addresses in Times Square signal prestige, if not logic’, New York Times (15 Jul. 1990), 21.

43 See File #2351 in the House Numbering Archive at the Manhattan Borough President's Topographical Office.

45 A classic discussion of urban form is provided by Kostof, S., The City Shaped: Urban Patterns and Meanings Through History (Boston, MA, 1991).

46 See R. Rose-Redwood and A. Tantner, ‘Introduction: governmentality, house numbering and the spatial history of the modern city’, Urban History, this issue; M. Cicchini, ‘A new “inquisition”? Police reform, urban transparency and house numbering in eighteenth-century Geneva’, Urban History, this issue.

47 Bourdieu, P., Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, 1977). Also, see Rose-Redwood, R., ‘From number to name: symbolic capital, places of memory and the politics of street renaming in New York City’, Social and Cultural Geography, 9 (2008), 431–53.

48 As cited in Lyons, ‘How builders invent vanity addresses’, New York Times, 434.

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Urban History
  • ISSN: 0963-9268
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