Friday, December 28, 2012

Providence, 1636

Cambridge, December 28, 2012

Soon after reaching Boston in 1631, Rev. Roger Williams realized that his fellow Pilgrims had replicated the very forms of religious intolerance and authoritarian governance that had prompted him to leave England.  After a few tumultuous years--by the fall of 1635 he had been convicted of sedition and heresy--Williams resettled beyond the reaches of the Massachusetts land grant and established Providence Plantations.  What kind of plan could come out of such critical attitudes towards the power of church and state?

As it turned out, a most radical plan.  Roger Williams seemed to see common, public space at the root of social evil, so the foundational geometry of his new settlement was reduced to a single road--"The Towne Streete"--along the eastern coast of "The Great Salt River" (roughly on the alignment of present-day Main between Olney and Wickenden) and a series of long parallel lots, about five acres each, running up the hill with a narrow frontage to the street.

There you have it, an uncompromising, non-hierarchical linear scheme, with an even distribution of land and the most minimal amount of public infrastructure.  We'll have to wait more than a century to see the opening of a transversal street cutting through the lots, "for the common benefit."

Note from my friend Judith Wolin: "Williams was using the "Long Lot" farm system that was often used by the French along rivers and marshes... first ones in the New World were along the St. Lawrence in Quebec in the 1620's..."

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