Sunday, January 6, 2013

Seeing the World Metropolis from an Airplane

Cambridge, January 6, 2013

Of course, the 20th century brought with it a new and unique vantage point to look at the city: the airplane.  Now you could really "see" the map.  By 1921 the Fairchild Aerial Camera Corp. (Sherman Fairchild was a pioneer of both aviation and photography) had completed the first aerial survey of New York.  But well before that, pilots and photographers had seen and recorded the city from above.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the Keystone View Company had already published a number of stereoscopic cards (Keystone was the largest producer and distributor of stereographic images) showing major cities seen from up high.  There is one particular view of Manhattan whose title more than acknowleges the momentous circumstances that brought together powered air flight and the modern city: "A Startling Privilege of the Age - Seeing the World Metropolis from an Airplane, New York City".

Another Keystone card looks at Manhattan in more detail and farther north, including the whole of Central part and a good chunk of the grid around it.  Now you can clearly see, in built form, both the Commisioners' Plan of 1811 with its uncompromising regular grid (still, if you look at the botton-left corner you can see the beauty of Broadway slicing the blocks at an angle) and Olmsted and Vaux's 1857 Greensward Plan of an enormous (more than 800 acres of prime real estate!) urban park with its overarching--in Calvert Vaux's own words--"artistic conception".

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