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

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Manhattan, 2008 Manhattan, 2008 (Copyright ©Stephen Amiaga)

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. 


Ted Steinberg

Comments [10]

Marci Blackman from Brooklyn

Today at the end of the show, Leonard wished he see what the dutch or Henry Hudson saw when they first encountered Manhattan Island. He should check out Eric Sanderson's book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City. A few years back, National Geographic ran a feature about the Mannahatta Project which used an 18th century british map to create a computer generated interactive image of what New York looked like in 1609.

Jun. 10 2014 02:11 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

So when the sea rises up we'll become like Venice, with more gondola taxis. Also bridges can be built from skyscraper to skyscraper binding them all together. You'll be able to zoom from building to building without ever touching the ground. Where there is a will there's a way as long as people want to come, work, stay here and pay taxes NYC will be still be around.

Jun. 10 2014 01:59 PM
Sam from Staten Island

Unfortunately upstream sewer overflows still pollute Staten Island's beaches with large quantities of durable flushed waste. Beaches are cleaned in preparation for Memorial Day. My son unwittingly walked the beach before the summer sand cleaning and picked up a hypodermic needle in his foot. Also lots of plastic feminine hygiene waste.
But we still love Staten Island's water front and as residents on the Kill Van Kull look for better days ahead.

Jun. 10 2014 01:53 PM
jgarbuz from Queens

It's amazing. NYC has a density of nearly 20,000 people per square mile, and Manhattan over 3 times that density, and yet they keep on coming. As long as the city remains safe and provides some interesting jobs, particularly for creative folk, they will keep coming. And the buildings will get even taller yet. Just goes to show, give the folks safety and variety, and they will crowd in like sardines. Amazing.

Jun. 10 2014 01:52 PM
Vera from Highbridge

very shallow piece.

they gave all the $$$$ dough to the manhattan east side to create MORE ameniites, under the guise of protection etc. bronx gets crumbs to placate the politically quiet

Jun. 10 2014 01:49 PM
Hal from New York City

Indeed oysters ARE being restored to NY harbor:

Jun. 10 2014 01:31 PM
Joe from nearby

Would it be too much to ask your guest to speak up so we can actually hear him without having our volume on 11?

Thank you!

Jun. 10 2014 01:28 PM

Does WNYC _HAVE_ to link to Amazon?

Since their Hachette ultimatum and attempted anschluss of smaller, beaten-into-submission publishers, I'm boycotting.

Alternatives: alibris, Powell's, and many more.

Jun. 10 2014 01:26 PM
Amy from Manhattan

Thinking about it as a "fight" is part of the problem.

Jun. 10 2014 12:23 PM
Steve from Rockville Centre, NY

It is speculated that the extinction of the Labrador duck in the 19th century was due in part to the high level of pollutants in NY Harbor, one of the major wintering grounds for the birds.

Jun. 10 2014 10:38 AM

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