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Gotham Unbound

The Ecological History of Greater New York
By Ted Steinberg

Read an Excerpt

Gotham Unbound


For an unparalleled nature adventure, head for the Island of Many Hills. This place lives up to its name with 573 prominences of one kind or another. But the topography is in some ways the least of the adventure. With fifty-five different ecological communities packed into just twenty-odd square miles, the island is a veritable Garden of Eden. From marine eelgrass meadow to shrub swamp, low salt marsh to brackish intertidal mudflats, blueberry bog thicket to oak-tulip forest, this spot is a living embodiment of the phrase “wealth of nature.” There are more than twenty ponds and over sixty miles of streams and perhaps as many as three hundred springs gurgling away. There are oysters galore. There are black bears, wolves, mountain lions, whales, and porpoises. There are red-winged blackbirds, American redstarts, red-bellied woodpeckers, clapper rails, and great horned owls. There are, in the sedge department alone, densetuft, oval-leaf, hop, broadleaf, parasol, threeway, Muhlenberg’s, Schweinitz’s, Pennsylvania, and hairy umbrella-sedge. This is Mannahatta: a place we are all four hundred years too late to visit.1

As it turned out, this landmass on the Atlantic Coast of North America did not become a nature preserve. It emerged instead as an urban giant: the Borough of Manhattan—the heart of one of the most drastically transformed natural environments in the world. New York is the most populous city in the United States and has been for the last two centuries. In 1609, less than 1 percent of the Manhattan landscape showed evidence of human influence. By the early twenty-first century, 97 percent of the land had been converted to buildings, sidewalks, parking lots, streets, recreational areas, and other artifacts of civilization. The dominant species by this time was, of course, neither the oyster nor the mountain lion but Homo sapiens sapiens. Today a stunning 69,464 people per square mile live in Manhattan. And as goes Manhattan, so goes the rest of the New York metropolitan area.2

This book is about the struggle between New York and the natural world. At its core, the story is about how, over centuries, people have come to understand, define, and ultimately transform New York’s land, water, and its plant and animal life. The metropolitan area assumed its current shape by way of a set of contingent decisions. Which is precisely why we want to study its history: to understand how ecological change has made New York what it is today, while acknowledging that, present concerns aside, the past has a logic all its own. The struggle at the center of this story has been overwhelmingly one-sided; a man-bites-dog story, if you will. To cite just one measure, between 1900 and 2010, development had whittled down Staten Island’s monumental 5,099 acres of marsh—wildlands more than a third the size of all Manhattan, filled with night herons, belted kingfishers, dragonflies, and snails—to a fractional existence the size of a mere city park (865 acres).3 Part of the story, too, is that sometimes the dog bit back.

To examine New York is to confront what has always been—in one form or another—a high-density place. The key to appreciating this point is to first understand that New York exists in the estuary of the Hudson River, where freshwater meets the Atlantic Ocean. Estuaries are very special environments and, from an ecological perspective, highly productive ones. They are located at the point where freshwater and salt water join together, and play a role not only as habitat for birds and other wildlife but also in the health of oceans, by filtering water and acting as nursery grounds for fish. They tend to be crammed with life. Estuaries trap nutrients from the adjoining watershed and thus are capable of supplying food to enormous populations of species, from oysters to grasses to waterfowl. Not for nothing is the New York area one of the great stopping points for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway, the avian world’s version of an interstate.4

The ecological history of New York, then, can be summed up very simply: an estuary with a high natural density was replaced by one with an astonishingly high unnatural (for lack of a better word) density. Human beings overshadow the area, but that has hardly led to the end of nature, as it were. In fact, just the reverse. Though the diversity of the plant and animal world is less encyclopedic than what it was back when Henry Hudson made his famed voyage in 1609, some species—gulls, Phragmites (common reed), various kinds of plankton—have thrived on the disruption caused by squeezing more than 6 percent of the entire population of the nation into one small space. Those who see the swarms of people at Times Square and think New York is an exceptionally dense environment don’t know the half of it.5

• • •

There has been a sense that New York’s success as a city was somehow foreordained, that the place was geographically destined for greatness. It is an old idea. Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes, the author of an epic early-twentieth-century study of Manhattan and its topography, wrote that commerce was “naturally attracted” to the “splendid harbor.” More recently, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser has offered a more sophisticated analysis. Acknowledging that Gotham’s rise was a multidimensional process, he nevertheless pinpointed the ramifying economic impact of the city’s status as a port, which itself was based on geographic advantages such as proximity to the ocean and a location along the wide and navigable Hudson River. “In this case,” he writes, “geography really was destiny, and the significance of trade and immigration to the early republic ensured that New York would dominate.” A recent popular history echoes that conclusion: “Geography would prove to be destiny—more, perhaps, than in the history of any other city on earth.”6

There is little doubting the importance of geography. But it is wrong to view it as static. For New York has undergone profound geographic transformations, especially in the last two centuries. The harbor is hardly one that George Washington (who was inaugurated here), much less Henry Hudson, would recognize. Between the early nineteenth century and 1980, an area of marshland four times the size of the island of Manhattan was destroyed. Nearly three Manhattan Islands’ worth of open water, moreover, was filled, explaining why Upper New York Bay is now only three-quarters the size it was in 1845. Altogether, an area of tidal marsh and underwater land in the Hudson estuary amounting to almost half the size of the five boroughs has been lost to urban development. It is not too much to call New York one giant reclamation project.7

Hence, my argument is not that geography is destiny but, in a sense, the reverse. A dense city evolved in the Hudson estuary largely because of the trust in constant population and economic growth—New York’s destiny as articulated by those who have run it.

When the growth fetish began is a little hard to say, but it was almost certainly manifest by the middle of the nineteenth century. By that point, the idea that progress rested on what one historian has called “a condition of never-ending growth” had taken root more broadly in the nation. Eventually this fascination with expansion would come to inform the thinking of New York’s boosters as they vied to shake off the restraining grip of the natural world and reshape relations with land and sea. And this faith in the virtues of the onward march of progress continues to weigh heavily on the minds of those who rule the city. “Growth,” professor of urban planning Tom Angotti put it recently, “is always presumed to be good, even in a Manhattan that is already densely packed with buildings and has little breathing room.” That said, I am not unsympathetic to the importance of economic advancement. What inspires me instead is the necessity to accurately depict the consequences of growth for the region’s ecological fabric.8

• • •

Historians of New York have tended to see natural forces as a backdrop to what they consider the more important matters of politics and economics. Even the most comprehensive historical works seem to view the natural environment as little more than a preface to the tale of New York’s rise from trading post to metropolis to megalopolis. And yet, crusades to control nature are as central to New York’s history as battles are to the Civil War. Driving the Grand Central Parkway near La Guardia Airport, you might never know that you are passing by Meadow Lake, a man-made body of water that was once a prodigious salt marsh carved up by rivers and sporting panicled expanses of green cordgrass. That was before a war was waged to fend off the sea and make way for the appropriately named lake—New York City’s largest. The reinvention of a marsh as a lake gives us an inkling of the task this book takes up. We must examine how the landscape changed, who was responsible for those changes, and what environmental and social impacts grew out of them. The population density of the New York metropolitan area, after all, rests on a set of ecological imperatives such as the need for water and a place to discharge all the waste produced when millions of people live side by side. What happens in Vegas may stay there, but the same does not hold true for New York.9

Gotham Unbound forgoes the tidy political watersheds that have defined the study of this great city and emphasizes a new set of turning points. Not simply the shift from Dutch to English rule, but the market in underwater land is what concerns me in Part 1. This was a development that not only betrayed the colonists’ approach to the natural world but also set the stage for the far more massive efforts to reshape the region and profit off the land that came later.

Part 2 places considerable emphasis on the 1811 grid plan, which was indeed a major change that built on the earlier underwater history of Manhattan Island while laying the groundwork for the high-density living that would come to define the region. Altogether, the grid, the development of an off-island water supply, and other trends associated with the quest for limitless growth combined to cause the most radical alteration of the waters of New York Harbor in recorded history.

What the transformation of the harbor was to the nineteenth century, the makeover of wetlands was to the hundred years that followed. Once marshlands dominated the waterfront from Long Island on the east to the Hackensack Meadowlands on the west—little more than wind blowing across these sweeping expanses of grass. Probing the fate of the marshlands in the shadow of one of the densest urban agglomerations in the world is the subject of Part 3.

Then the fourth and final part explores the period since 1960 as the environmental movement began to blossom. It focuses on the limits to growth in a metropolis long defined by rampant development and ends with Hurricane Sandy. In sum, Gotham Unbound tells the story of New York over the last four centuries from the ground up, a vantage point that reveals a world of change and dislocation that is otherwise difficult to discern.

I freely admit that it is a little hard to define exactly where this book takes place. My main concern is with New York Harbor, broadly construed, and the land surrounding it. Starting with Manhattan and using the coordinates found on a compass, this means that I will examine the expanse stretching from as far east as Jones Beach on Long Island, as far west as the Meadowlands, and as far south as the edge of the New York Bight—the shallow water extending seaward from where the coasts of New York and New Jersey meet to the edge of the continental shelf. To sum up in a word or two this far-reaching tidal network of marshes, rivers, and bays—the habitats mainly dealt with below—is a tall order. I simply call it Greater New York.10

Rather than offer a comprehensive portrait of all that has happened across this vast terra infirma, I aim instead to simply make New York a less familiar proposition—to show that there is much still to know and understand about a place that many think they know so well. Put somewhat differently, without the changes described in this study, Fresh Kills today would be a wetland and not a mountain chain. Without them, people might be fishing the pond in lower Manhattan or donning waders to walk along the aptly named Water Street. Flushing Meadows would be a meadow instead of the city’s largest lake, Coney Island a real island, and the Meadowlands a place people think of for its snapping turtles and the whistling call of osprey, not for its football or harness racing.

• • •

It might be tempting to write off New York Harbor’s ecological history as a simple tale of decline and fall. But that would be inaccurate. There is no question that, by the 1920s, the harbor had reached a nadir in terms of the oxygen saturation necessary to sustain marine life and that, later on, Staten Island’s Fresh Kills was buried under several colossal mountains of garbage. But the waters have since recovered to a great extent, and Fresh Kills, now no longer a landfill, is being turned into a city park. By the 1970s, herons and egrets had returned to the gritty Arthur Kill separating Staten Island and New Jersey, one of the most industrialized areas of the entire harbor. Today seal-watching cruises depart from Rockaway, Queens.11

So I am not contending that the Big Apple has the biggest ecological problems in the world.12 My focus instead is on relationships: on the link between new ways of understanding land, especially underwater land, and the changing geography of the city; on the transcendence of the local water supply and the decline in marine life; on the rise of a vision of New York as an infinite proposition and the quest to encroach on the sea; on the relationship between the overproduction of waste and the making of urban mountains; and of course on the link between the present shape of the metropolitan area and the past. An ecological history of New York can help us see that it is wrong to take the city for granted but right to question how the landscape we see driving along the Belt Parkway or strolling along the Hudson River came to be.

These connections are important to recognize because it seems fair to say, as at least one writer has, that today comparatively few New Yorkers realize that they are living in the estuary of the Hudson River.13 This lack of knowledge is perhaps understandable in a place known to many as a concrete jungle. Why would contemporary New Yorkers think of themselves as residents in an environment where river and ocean meet when so much of that environment—its smooth cordgrass, fiddler crabs, marsh hens—has been overshadowed by monumental building exploits? And yet there is nothing natural or inevitable about the lapse. Understanding the forces that have made New York what it is will not only place the city in a new light. It will illuminate how this estrangement from the natural world came about. An ecological history has the potential to reconnect people not just with the past but also with the natural environment as it exists today.

It can also change how we think about the future. By midcentury, the projection is that seven out of every ten people on earth will live in a city. Urbanization is remaking landscapes across the globe and playing out with particular force in estuaries, where the bulk of the largest cities in the world are located. Moreover, New York, like other sister cities located in tidal environments, must face up to the realities of climate change. It is more than a little ironic that the celebration of New York’s ecological virtues—as a dense city with less per capita energy use than rural areas—has occurred concurrently with grim forecasts about its vulnerability to extreme weather. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 made it clear that the threat is real. Historians are not in the business of prediction, but exploring ecological history, which studies humankind’s struggle with natural constraints, is a uniquely good way to begin a discussion about the future of the world’s first megacity.14

In the depths of the fiscal crisis back in the 1970s, the critic Gilbert Millstein wrote that New York was “still the scale on which all other cities must be measured, precisely because of the destruction it has wreaked on itself, precisely because of the insane, unbalanced behavior of those who run it, tear it down and build it and decide what shall happen to it.” And it remains such a yardstick today. For all the oceans of ink spilled on New York, we have yet to fully understand the environmental transformation that underwrote what is one of the most creative acts of vandalism ever perpetrated on a natural landscape.15



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