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.
The project illustrates that old Manhattan for us through 3D digital renderings combined with photographs of actual similar and current ecosystems, to help create realistic speculative renderings of the wild island by Markley Boyer.
Select images from the book are presented in the exhibition at the City Museum, along with maps paintings, and written observations from various travelers at the time. The animated 3D map, where the landscape of Mannahatta morphs into that of contemporary Manhattan, is projected in the middle of the room, where it feels a little like a campfire. Meanwhile, signs for each section of the exhibit mimic subway signs.
“I really wanted something beautiful and emotional, so that you could connect it first with your heart, and then with your mind,” he said of the design of the exhibit. “The more time you spend with it, the more you experience it.”
What do you learn? Collect Pond was the biggest source of fresh water on the island. After the local tannery polluted the pond and it was filled in, the location became the swampy area known as Five Points, where violent gangs would fight it out, as depicted in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Times Square was home to the confluence of two streams that poured into the Hudson River and to Beaver Pond. The Hudson shores were simply sand banks and the East River shores were marshes.
When asked about further expanding the project to cover the outer boroughs, Sanderson said he had a student working on Queens and Brooklyn right now, but there is no funding, so it’s just a summer project. “Queens had 50 percent wetlands,” he noted.
He is also often asked about creating similar projects for other cities, like London and San Francisco. “Certainly, a lot of other cities in the world, you can do it right,” he said, but there are no further plans.
Currently, Sanderson is working on a competition for architects and landscape designers through a fellowship at the Van Alen Institute. In September 2009, contestants will be invited to work design a sustainable working plan for Manhattan in the year 2409, working within predetermined guidelines. “A beaver needs habitat, and you have to supply food and shelter for it to work,” Sanderson says, “so where is the city going to get those things? What will the city produce, what will it get from the surrounding regions, and get from the world?”
While today’s Manhattan is vastly different from the Mannahatta of four centuries ago, Sanderson still believes the city has a bright future. “I’m really optimistic about the future of New York City,” he said. “I think people are really ready and hungry for wanting to know how to live their lives in ways that are meaningful and satisfactory, but not in ways that harm the environment.”
He pointed to architecture and the green revolution as evidence: “People are thinking about how we can live in cities in a resource-efficient manner, and there’s a push to express them more fully. Like green roofs that don’t rely on air conditioning.”
“Even closing streets like we do over the summer and encourage people to ride bikes,” he added. “If you take cars off the streets, it becomes really rideable and fantastic.”
When I asked him about his favorite New York City spot, Sanderson responded enthusiastically: “Inwood Park—the place that’s closest to Manhattan and closest to the Hudson River. It has great, beautiful hills and it’s so far uptown that people still haven’t been there.”
(photo credit: Markley Boyer, The Mannahatta Project, Wildlife Conservation Society; Yanan Arthus-Bertrand, CORBIS. Composite image by Markley Boyer)
Rehabilitating any one of the hundreds of formerly aboveground rivers that once made the island of Manhattan so pretty may be just a dream, but it's a beautiful dream, damn it.
Jul 30, 2009