Thursday, November 19, 2015 Filed in: Book Reviews
New York is one of the most written-about American cities. There are histories of specific periods in the city's past, of particular parts of the city, and of particular groups that have lived, worked, or passed through New York. Recently, Environmental Historian Ted Steinberg published what he calls an Ecological History of Greater New York, called Gotham Unbound. Like Steinberg's earlier book, Nature Incorporated, Gotham Unbound examines the way relationship with the Manhattan landscape interacted with changing ideas about the natural world. The specific focus of this story is the development of the underwater land surrounding the original island of Manhattan.
Others have described the leveling of Manhattan and erasure of the hills, streams, forests, and ponds settlers found. Steinberg focuses on the filling and development of tidal salt-marshes and shallows close to shore. Between the early nineteenth century and today, he says, "an area of marshland four times the size of the island of Manhattan was destroyed. Nearly three Manhattan Islands' worth of open water, moreover was filled." Not only would the city itself be unrecognizable to its early explorers and settlers, says Steinberg; so would the Bay and waterways surrounding it.
Steinberg reminds us of characteristics of greater New York that are difficult to remember because they disappeared so long ago. When Europeans arrived, he says, they found a complex ecosystem that provided an incredibly abundant variety of foods. And unlike London, which had to protect itself from a twenty-foot tide, the tidal range around Manhattan was less than five feet. This made building docks and reclaiming land much easier for New Yorkers, which helped make New York Harbor a center of Atlantic Trade.
By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Steinberg says, a grid was imposed on the island and extended into the shallow water offshore, and offshore lots went on sale. Gradually, features of the terrain became less important, and the lots marked on the grid (whether above or below the tide-line) became understood as sources of potential profit rather than as parts of a natural environment. Like the rivers of Steinberg's earlier book, the marshes around Manhattan became economic instruments rather than parts of a world with its own rules, needs, or rights.
It's fascinating to imagine a Manhattan covered by old-growth oaks and hemlocks rather than skyscrapers, and to learn of vanished bits of landscape and how they were erased. At the end of the book, Steinberg tells the story of Hurricane Sandy and speculates about the future of New York in an age of rising seas. Like his descriptions of the undeveloped island, these passages provide a lot of fuel for the imagination.
In contrast to Steinberg's ecological approach, another recent history titled Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898 covers the growth of the city from a variety of angles. The book is over 1,300 pages long, so its authors had ample space to look at politics, social and cultural history, and to tell the stories of all types of colorful New Yorkers. While the 1999 volume might reasonably have been subtitled "More than you'll ever want to know about New York," the story is very engaging and includes something for everyone, including Environmental Historians. For example, Gotham's coverage of mid-nineteenth century New York's pig problem is thorough and very interesting to read.
Gotham and Gotham Unbound are good examples of two different styles of history. Gotham represents the twenty-year collaboration of its authors, and is billed as "the first volume in the definitive history of New York City." Gotham Unbound represents the continuing work of a scholar pursuing a very specific theme. One is a broad synthesis of everything, a survey (albeit possibly the most thorough and detailed survey ever). The other is a deep look at a single issue that isn't well understood, a monograph. The survey, as you might expect, includes a bibliography that uses eight-point type and four columns per page, and still covers forty-two pages. The monograph cites primary sources, highlights the author's original research, and incorporates scientific findings and data from Historical GIS. The monograph makes a new contribution to the interpretation of New York's past. The survey makes a wealth of information about New York accessible and interesting to regular readers.
But in an interesting and slightly counterintuitive twist, the monograph was published by Simon and Schuster, a popular press, and the survey by the Oxford University Press. Which just goes to show, I guess, that in addition to not judging by covers, you can no longer judge a book by its publisher.