How New York Went from Natural Paradise to Man-Made Wonder

Today, the topography of New York City contains skyscrapers, subways, and iconic bridges. But New York was once home to oyster reefs, whales, and blueberry bog thickets. In his book, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York, Ted Steinberg brings a vanished New York back to life and tells the story of the ongoing struggle between the metropolis we know today and the natural world. 

The New York that Henry Hudson saw in 1609 was covered with oak and hickory trees, blueberry bog thickets, and all kinds of grasses. The waters around New York were filled with marine life including shad, porpoises, and whales. And there were “birds galore.” Oysters “were incredibly important to the ecology of New York Harbor” because they acted as filters for the water.

The Dutch first came to Governor’s Island and then travelled to what is now Lower Manhattan.  

But it was the British who started to make New York into something that we might recognize today. Large parts of the city were filled in throughout Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens. “Manhattan today is 1,700 football fields bigger than it was back at the time that Henry Hudson sailed into the Harbor.” 

But it was the street grid, introduced in 1811, that transformed Manhattan. “The grid pioneered high density life in New York.”

Thanks to plentiful marshland, malaria was a problem in Brooklyn into the 1910’s.

Staten Island once had 5,000 to 5,500 acres of wetland. By 2010, it was reduced to an area about the size of Central Park.