BEFORE THE CITY


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A firehouse and engine on E. New York Historical Society. Six girls sit at a Wall St. Women stroll on Fifth Ave. New York Public Library. Battery Park. People gather outside the free public baths at the Battery, Traffic at Fifth Ave. Cyclists on Broadway, First Ave. A police officer speaks with a street peddler in front of Pier 5, The 11th Ave.

Second Ave. MacDougal Alley in Greenwich Village, circa Street cars at 42nd St. Fourth Ave. Astor House at Broadway and Barclay St. Hotel Brevoort in The original Washington Square arch, The Washington Square arch. Broadway before the construction of the Flatiron Building. The Central Park reservoir, circa The corner of Fifth Ave. A view of the Brooklyn Bridge at 12th St. A curio shop on 28th St. Corner of Lexington Ave. Or, in the words of F.

Scott Fitzgerald, "As the moon rose higher, the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that once flowered for Dutch sailors' eyes, a fresh green breast of the new world. My colleagues and I have been working for 10 years to rediscover this lost world in a project we call The Mannahatta Project. We're trying to discover what Henry Hudson would have seen on the afternoon of September 12th, , when he sailed into New York harbor.

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And I'd like to tell you the story in three acts, and if I have time still, an epilogue. So, I didn't grow up in New York. And from these early experiences as a child I learned to love landscapes. And so when it became time for me to do my graduate studies, I studied this emerging field of landscape ecology. Landscape ecology concerns itself with how the stream and the meadow and the forest and the cliffs make habitats for plants and animals. This experience and this training lead me to get a wonderful job with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which works to save wildlife and wild places all over the world.

And over the last decade, I traveled to over 40 countries to see jaguars and bears and elephants and tigers and rhinos. And on my weekends I would go up, just like all the other tourists, to the top of the Empire State Building, and I'd look down on this landscape, on these ecosystems, and I'd wonder, "How does this landscape work to make habitat for plants and animals?

How does it work to make habitat for animals like me? I'd go to Central Park and see the rolling topography of Central Park come up against the abrupt and sheer topography of midtown Manhattan. I started reading about the history and the geography in New York City. I read that New York City was the first mega-city, a city of 10 million people or more, in I started seeing paintings like this.

Laughter It was once a beach. And this painting has John James Audubon, the painter, sitting on the rock. And it's looking up on the wooded heights of Washington Heights to Jeffrey's Hook, where the George Washington Bridge goes across today. Or this painting, from the s, from Greenwich Village. Those are two students at King's College — later Columbia University — sitting on a hill, overlooking a valley. And I couldn't find that palm tree. What's that palm tree doing there? So, it was in the course of these investigations that I ran into a map.

And it's this map you see here. It's held in a geographic information system which allows me to zoom in. This map isn't from Hudson's time, but from the American Revolution, years later, made by British military cartographers during the occupation of New York City. And it's a remarkable map. It's in the National Archives here in Kew. And it's 10 feet long and three and a half feet wide. Here's Bowling Green. And here's Broadway. And this is City Hall Park. So the city basically extended to City Hall Park.

And just beyond it you can see features that have vanished, things that have disappeared.

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This is the Collect Pond, which was the fresh water source for New York City for its first years, and for the Native Americans for thousands of years before that. You can see the Lispenard Meadows draining down through here, through what is TriBeCa now, and the beaches that come up from the Battery, all the way to 42nd St. This map was made for military reasons. They're mapping the roads, the buildings, these fortifications that they built. But they're also mapping things of ecological interest, also military interest: the hills, the marshes, the streams.

Or the swamp at Gramercy Park, right here. Or Murray Hill. And this is the Murrays' house on Murray Hill, years ago. Here is Times Square, the two streams that came together to make a wetland in Times Square, as it was at the end of the American Revolution. So I saw this remarkable map in a book.

And I thought to myself, "You know, if I could georeference this map, if I could place this map in the grid of the city today, I could find these lost features of the city, in the block-by-block geography that people know, the geography of where people go to work, and where they go to live, and where they like to eat.

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We can digitize the Collect Pond and the streams, and see where they actually are in the geography of the city today. So this is fun for finding where things are relative to the old topography. But I had another idea about this map. If we take away the streets, and if we take away the buildings, and if we take away the open spaces, then we could take this map.


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If we pull off the 18th century features we could drive it back in time. We could drive it back to its ecological fundamentals: to the hills, to the streams, to the basic hydrology and shoreline, to the beaches, the basic aspects that make the ecological landscape. Then, if we added maps like the geology, the bedrock geology, and the surface geology, what the glaciers leave, if we make the soil map, with the 17 soil classes, that are defined by the National Conservation Service, if we make a digital elevation model of the topography that tells us how high the hills were, then we can calculate the slopes.

We can calculate the aspect. We can calculate the winter wind exposure — so, which way the winter winds blow across the landscape. The white areas on this map are the places protected from the winter winds. We compiled all the information about where the Native Americans were, the Lenape.

And we built a probability map of where they might have been. So, the red areas on this map indicate the places that are best for human sustainability on Manhattan, places that are close to water, places that are near the harbor to fish, places protected from the winter winds. We know that there was a Lenape settlement down here by the Collect Pond.

And we knew that they planted a kind of horticulture, that they grew these beautiful gardens of corn, beans, and squash, the "Three Sisters" garden. So, we built a model that explains where those fields might have been. And the old fields, the successional fields that go. And we might think of these as abandoned. But, in fact, they're grassland habitats for grassland birds and plants. And they have become successional shrub lands, and these then mix in to a map of all the ecological communities.

And it turns out that Manhattan had 55 different ecosystem types. You can think of these as neighborhoods, as distinctive as TriBeCa and the Upper East Side and Inwood — that these are the forest and the wetlands and the marine communities, the beaches. And 55 is a lot.

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On a per-area basis, Manhattan had more ecological communities per acre than Yosemite does, than Yellowstone, than Amboseli. It was really an extraordinary landscape that was capable of supporting an extraordinary biodiversity. So, we studied the fish and the frogs and the birds and the bees, the 85 different kinds of fish that were on Manhattan, the Heath hens, the species that aren't there anymore, the beavers on all the streams, the black bears, and the Native Americans, to study how they used and thought about their landscape.

We wanted to try and map these. And to do that what we did was we mapped their habitat needs.

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Where do they get their food? Where do they get their water? Where do they get their shelter?

BEFORE THE CITY BEFORE THE CITY
BEFORE THE CITY BEFORE THE CITY
BEFORE THE CITY BEFORE THE CITY
BEFORE THE CITY BEFORE THE CITY
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