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Book Review: Gotham Unbound

Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York by Ted Steinberg sounds, at first, like a bad joke: it’s a natural history of the New York City area, which is one of the most heavily modified landscapes in the world. We’re surrounded by all sorts of nature here, including aspects that are impervious to our intent, like the Atlantic Ocean and Hudson River, but most of what can be seen is either artificial or modified by people. Our best parks are human-made, not preserved nature; as I’ve discussed here many times, we’ve altered the boundaries and bottoms of our rivers and harbors. (For reference, in the 1930s photo above, the Hudson River is in the foreground, the East River is on the far side of Manhattan, Governors Island is on the right with Buttermilk Channel separating it from Brooklyn behind, the harbor is unseen off to the right, and the Atlantic Ocean is just visible in the far distance.)

There are several threads running through the book and you need to keep track of all simultaneously to get Steinberg’s point. The first is that the landfill that took place around lower Manhattan, west of it in what’s now Jersey City and Hoboken, and east of it in Brooklyn, was neither haphazard nor accidental. As early as the late seventeenth century, the city sold “water lots” for development. A water lot was a piece of the East or Hudson River adjacent to the shore, often with a small piece of shore contained within the boundaries. There was no money to be made from a stretch of water, so the intent was that the purchasers would fill some of all of the water lots, creating new land to be developed and thereby enrich themselves and the city.

The second thread is the disappearance of wetlands. The word “meadow” in New York’s history means a wetland or swamp. Former wetlands include the Lispenard meadows in lower Manhattan (now Tribeca and southern SoHo), the Stuyvesant meadows in Manhattan (now Alphabet City), the edges of Spuyten Duyvil Creek in Manhattan and the Bronx, the Gowanus meadows in Brooklyn, Flushing meadows in Queens, the Elizabeth and Hackensack meadows in New Jersey, the Brooklyn and Queens periphery of Jamaica Bay, Great Kills and Fresh Kills in Staten Island, and so on. A lot of the area that was “land” on old maps was actually only land some of the time, so people weren’t just landfilling in the rivers and bays, they were landfilling on land to get rid of the swamps.

The third thread is unintended consequences. Filling in the Manhattan side of the East River shore focussed the current so that Buttermilk Channel went from a shallow near-wetland to being deep enough for ocean-going ships. Filling in the wetlands, in general, sped up currents.

And the last thread is the reversibility of all the past work. Left alone, the artificial bulkheads would eventual fail, and erosion would start removing landfill. More importantly, sea-level rise and the possibility of more storms like Hurricane Sandy mean that New York harbor and its tributaries (including Newark Bay, for example) are more vulnerable than is commonly understood. We spent four hundred years separating water from land without really thinking about the consequences, and now we have to start planning for how to address them. The current plan for protecting Manhattan form sea-level rise and storm surge can be seen as a belated effort to make the past land gains permanent.

It’s a good history, a well-written book, and most importantly, a very different angle on a story that’s been told from mostly a triumphalist “man conquers nature” perspective.