Picture a time when Kips and Turtle Bays were actual bays, and East Harlem was nothing but plains. When Queens and Brooklyn were still considered part of Long Island, the was Bronx part of Westchester, and the center of New York was just Manhattan. Now it’s a paved paradise with buildings, streets and sidewalks, but back then two-thirds of that island were covered in green forests. Deer, otters, bobcats, and rabbits roamed the thickets. The island was smaller then: 11,817 acres instead of its current 13,690 acres. When Mannahatta was truly the island of many hills, as the Lenape Indians, the original New Yorkers, called it. Welcome to New York, circa 1609.
It’s been 400 years since Henry Hudson and his crew of the Half-Moon set sail up what would become his namesake river and, my oh my, how New York has changed. Instead of soaring trees, there are towering buildings made of brick and steel. Our urban opera now includes honking motorists, screeching tires, constant chatter, construction noise, jackhammers, and blaring music, with the occasional bird chirp somewhere in the mix.
Even though the wild Manhattan of old is long gone, you can get a sense of it in Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, 1609 to 2009, a project helmed by Eric Sanderson, landscape ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). The endeavor exists both as a book and exhibit form at the Museum of the City of New York.
Eric Sanderson thought he’d always live in northern California, where he grew up and got his PhD in landscape ecology at the University of California, Davis. Then he got a job offer from the WCS, which is headquartered at the Bronx Zoo.
In between his far-flung trips trying to figure out how to conserve international ecological systems, Sanderson made his home on City Island, which he describes as “a little bit like an old fishing village, New York-style.” During the weekends, he ventured into Manhattan and acted like a proper tourist, though he couldn’t turn his mind off. “I would go to the Empire State Building and try to figure out how this landscape works,” Sanderson said. “Like how the savannah in Africa works: how does this ecosystem work in New York? It was so different from what I’ve grown up with.” “Manhattan is so extraordinary,” he continued, “it is the densest place in the United states by twofold.”
Whenever he was about to visit a new location, Sanderson did his research and New York was no exception. Often, he would look at old maps, which greatly intrigued him. This was how he stumbled upon the British Headquarters’ Map, dating from 1872. The map was created during the American Revolution by the British Army to figure out strategic strong and weak points throughout New York in order to protect itself from the Americans. The meticulously detailed map included the original shoreline, elevations, and locations of marshes, streams, wildlife and plant life.
“If you take that map and geo-reference it to the city today, then I could figure out where those streams are,” Sanderson said. “All those features are long lost from the island of Manhattan.” That’s exactly what he did, and armed with the map and a GPS system, he created the Mannahatta Project.