Mapping Mannahatta, The Original Manhattan

07/22/2009 4:00 AM |

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)