If you know what to look for, the unassuming south Brooklyn neighborhood of Gravesend contains “the fossilized traces of an extinct town plan,” the first colonial North American village founded by a woman, Lady Deborah Moody. As Thomas J. Campanella wrote in The Landscape Journal, when it was founded in 1643, “Gravesend was only the second settlement in the English colonies laid out on an orthogonal grid.” It was a unique and innovative form of town planning.
Lady Moody was a member of the English nobility who had emigrated in search of greater civil and religious liberty, leading a small band of followers to establish a modest utopia. Campanella notes, ” in light of her piety, it is highly probable that Deborah Moody was aware of the scriptural implications of [the town’s plan]… Ezekiel specified a square city.” The ideal cities of the Bible were square, oriented north, south, east, and west, and measured symmetrically about two central axes. Gravesend too was aligned to the cardinal points. The unique enclosed grid shape of Gravesend likely also had defensive implications; when the Gravesenders arrived in 1643, the Dutch were at war with the local Algonquians.
“In its elegant and logical simplicity, the plan of Gravesend was almost without precedent in the English New World. Indeed, it was hoped that Gravesend would one day become the capital of an English province on Long Island,” writes Campanella. As it turns out, Gravesend Bay was too shallow to allow the anchorage of sea-going vessels. Despite its noble ambitions and vigorous youth, Moody’s utopia was short-lived. In 1894, Gravesend was annexed to Brooklyn, and in 1898 Brooklyn was annexed into Greater New York.
No one knows precisely what happened to Lady Moody. Her grave has never been found.
Video created by Lauren Haldeman
Music: Den by Podington Bear | CC BY-NC 4.0