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gotham unbound

20 february 2016

It's hard to forget that New York City is surrounded by water. Bridges and tunnels make up a large part of everyday getting around. When you land at LaGuardia you definitely notice the water, and wonder if you're going to end up in it. I used to commute across the Hudson and Harlem, and then the East and Harlem Rivers, daily. Some of my favorite walks in greater New York are in wetlands that have somehow been preserved (or more accurately, remade and managed), including Alley Pond and Udalls Cove in northeast Queens.

What can escape your notice is how much of what seems rock-solid land in New York was under water just a split-second ago in geological time. Indeed, the city is so massive that it came as a profound shock to find so much of it under water again after Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012.

Ted Steinberg's Gotham Unbound is subtitled "The ecological history of greater New York." It's actually more specific: it's a hydrological history of greater New York, though that subtitle mightn't have sold as many copies. One can forgive the slippage from specific to general because New York's, as Steinberg establishes, is an essentially water-based ecology. The old city of New Amsterdam, now the towering Financial District, was largely marshland when the Dutch arrived. A few hills poked above the water-level terrain of lower Manhattan back in the day, but they were balanced by large swamps that still undergird Tribeca and much of the lower East Side. Broad Street was originally a ditch that drained the oldest part of the city, and Canal Street its larger, later analogue uptown.

Steinberg takes a chronological approach to the draining and filling of New York, starting with the wetlands downtown and the steady march of the city out into the East and Hudson Rivers. He notes as crucial a legal and conceptual innovation brought by English colonizers: the idea that one could establish real property that was completely underwater. The English encouraged entrepreneurs to thrust piers into the rivers and then to fill the gaps between the piers. The natural shoreline of lower Manhattan is indicated by Pearl Street on the east and Greenwich Street on the west. Long before Battery Park City marched out into the Hudson River, early English colonizers almost doubled the available land at the tip of the island.

And the remaking of lower Manhattan is a relatively small part of Steinberg's story. Natural water features vanished vanished from the entire island, and the demands of the 1811 grid plan leveled most of it. Meanwhile, across the region, developers filled vast expanses of wetland, radically simplifying its ecosystems when they didn't destroy them. Bergen Neck burgeoned in New Jersey at the expense of Newark Bay; the Gowanus area of Brooklyn turned from swamp to neighborhood, and Governors and Rikers Islands doubled in size. In the 20th century, much of Jamaica and Flushing Bays in Queens were filled to create airports and the World's Fair site, and, hugest of all, the Fresh Kills project in Staten Island replaced wetlands with garbage.

While New Yorkers were adding land to the picture by throwing hills or literal other junk into the sea, they were also adding unthinkable amounts of water to the system. Manhattan stopped providing water for itself early in the 19th century. The Croton and later the Ashokan reservoirs gave the city (and after 1898 its outlying boroughs) a staggering amount of water, well beyond any rational need. Where other cities, Steinberg argues, sought "closed loop" solutions to the problems of water and sewage, New York simply constructed an artificial river alongside its formidable natural ones and swept its wastes out to sea. The resulting eutrophication further changed the flora and fauna of the harbor, never entirely killing its wildlife but greatly simplifying it and decreasing its diversity. Two species that might have helped the system cope with an influx of nutrients – oysters and menhaden – were overfished and removed from the system, leaving it ravaged. Treating water as a free resource ironically brought about ecological disaster from an overplus of a usually good thing.

The defeat of the Westway project (which would have extended Manhattan further into the Hudson), the outsourcing of garbage disposal (allowing Fresh Kills to return to nature, though now as a hill rather than a swamp), and the sobering effects of Sandy may have brought the city to a recognition of its limits. But its population is still growing (as usual, upwards into ceaseless construction), fed by cheap water and hubris. The massive reclamation projects of the 20th century aren't far enough past to be able to say that New York has definitively done with them.

Meanwhile, now that the floodwaters have abated, New York seems once again to be a massive rock on the edge of the ocean, not a territory in delicate balance between land and sea. But Steinberg shows how the sea is always just a few feet away from gaining the upper hand.

Steinberg, Ted. Gotham Unbound: The ecological history of greater New York. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. QH 105 .N7S77