Gotham Unwatered

IMG_1328.jpgTed Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York is a history of the de-watering of the region. From the Dutch on, but particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we have have pushed out the borders of the archipelago with landfill. The interior wet places have been drained, filled in, and covered over. We’ve bulkheaded the expanded edges and made impervious great swaths of the landscape, or rather hardscape. The vast tidal flats and marshes of Staten Island, Newark Bay, Upper New York Bay, Jamaica Bay, and Flushing Bay have all been completely landfilled (with ash, garbage, harbor sand, & bulldozed topography) or reduced to a small relict of their past glory. The three regional airports were all built on landfill on salt-water marsh. With rising waters and more powerful storm surges, these old marshes will be sorely missed; they will also be, in fact, the first to flood, as Sandy all too plainly showed.

The enormously rich biota of the estuary the New York megapolis is built upon is now a thing of the past. Some things have certainly gotten better than they were a century ago when the harbor was so polluted there were no fish and no Osprey to eat them, and the last of the shellfish beds were closed because of poison and disease, but the improvements we have made are definitely far from complete. The waters have gotten deeper and biologically more simplified. And we’re still pumping in far too much nitrogen!

While researching Ellis Island (which celebrates its 125 anniversary as gateway to America on New Year’s Day), I found that it was one of four “Oyster Islands” in the Upper Bay. Of the other three, one was dredged away; one is now home to a lighthouse; one supports the Statue of Liberty, or should we say Statue of Limitations? The great oyster richness of the region seems unimaginable now, something out of a fantasy of plenty, even with the evidence of shell middens dating back 5000 years. Oysters still grow here, but nowhere near the numbers they once did. And who would eat one? A local program with the memorable name Billion Oyster Project aims to bring them back in substantial numbers.

Yet, as Steinberg notes, there is “no recovering the biological glory of Henry Hudson’s day…. The only relevant question is how to manage the land to increase diversity and ecological complexity as much as possible in a profoundly human-dominated environment.”

And to leave you with one final gleaning from the book: NYC didn’t come up with seismic building building code until 1995. There was a one-year grace period: developers rushed to get permits in before then. One of those projects was Trump’s huge Riverside South complex, which is built on terrain prone to liquefaction.

Wait, earthquakes? Yup. I’ve felt two minor ones over the years here in Brooklyn. The actual threat, though, is something on par of the (estimated) 4.9 quake off of Rockaway Beach in 1884. A 6.0 there would have major affects through the area. There’s small hazard of such a quake, but it’s high risk because of the density of people and property.

The imperative of growth is what has driven New York’s colonization of the water, to swagger heedlessly over the floodplain. Developers and their realtor lackeys insist we should continue such — though growth for the sake of growth remains the ideology of the cancer cell, as Edward Abbey noted.  But “we must even seriously entertain the idea of retreat” from the coastline, and realize the true costs of our ecological footprint.

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