2009 Year of the Mannahatta Project


photo via WCS

Most people when they think back on 2009 might not think of it as the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson's famous voyage of 1609, but for fans of the Mannahatta Project, it has been a year to celebrate. Mannahatta, the book was a big hit, mentioned on many holiday-round up lists, including an Editor's Choice from Barnes & Noble and Planetizen's list of best urban design books. There were also wonderful exhibitions at the Museum of the City of New York, the Seaport Museum and an exhibit of old maps at the New York Public Library. Dr. Eric Sanderson, the landscape architect and founder of the project, has given more than 60 presentations this year and trained more than 800 teachers. Over the year the project has brought together artists, landscape architects, historians and scientists all working collaboratively to stave off climate change. Most importantly the idea of "Mannahatta" appears to have been lodged into the consciousness of New Yorkers, at least for a little while.
The Mannahatta Project illustrates the original ecology of Manhattan prior to its metamorphosis by European settlers. The project was named after what the Lenape Indians used to call the Manhattan of 400 years ago. "Mannahatta means "town of many hills." Native Americans were in New York for 400 generations so it was not a virgin wilderness when the Dutch arrived. In 1609, only 300 people inhabited the island of Manhattan, today there are 1.5 million people.

The Mannahatta Project was an enormous undertaking, a decade of research that took five years just to do the visuals. The project explored the natural history of the isle when the place was as lush and green as a tropical rainforest. Fifty-five ecological communities, sixty-six miles of streams and more then one-thousand species used to exist in Manhattan. Once when visiting New York City Linnaeus said, "there are so many frogs; a man can't hear himself think." Today the diversity of Manhattan seems to be more cultural than ecological. Today the only creatures that seem to thrive here are hardy ones: rats, pigeons and New Yorkers, but some natural remnants have survived. Inwood has patches of old growth forest and Empire Rock in Central Park, has glacial scratches, proving it is from earlier times.

Sanderson became fascinated with Manhattan after relocating to New York from California. One map in particular, an old British Headquarters map, fascinated him. The map, made for British officers defending the island, details the contours of the island's topography, it swamps, and river locations. The British HQ map had no indicator of heights, so at the time Sanderson started mapping and georeferencing from old literature. This was not part of his job description; this is what he did for fun. He would go out to rocks, like the Empire rocks with a GPS and get an elevation reading that way, he did all of the tall rocks in the parks and cemeteries in lower Manhattan. From here he got 500 elevation points and the Mannahatta project was born. In the end 8,000 elevation points were added to British HQ map. Sanderson used the British map, Randel's Farm Maps, and a GPS system to create his own contour map of what Manhattan looked like in 1609. Sanderson used the geology depicted on the British Headquarters map to come up with his soil map. It took Sanderson years to get a topography map. Now he even has a bathymetry map. From that, he can tell where the springs and wetlands used to be. He used all of these sources and layered them together to create an uber-map made up of thousands of different ecosystems. With some graphic design work, Sanderson's mapping has produced gorgeous 3D renderings of what life used to look like in this erstwhile natural land.

You can see these amazing visuals in Sanderson's book, Mannahatta, or as you walk around the island on New Year's Eve you can close your eyes and imagine what used to be. I was fortunate enough to go on sold-out walking tour with Dr. Sanderson, where his descriptions made his book come to life.

Elevation and Hills
Manhattan as the Lenape knew was indeed once a hilly place, with 573 hills. The maximum height on Manhattan is and was in Bennett Park where Fort Washington had once been located, at 270 feet. In lower Manhattan, where the Dutch first settled, the hills were low, hardly more than 30 feet. Verlettenberg, which no longer exists, once provided enough of a snow slope for children to sled that merchants had to pass an ordinance against reckless sledding. From Tribeca along the edge of Greenwich Village and up to where Astor Place is today, there were a string of hills known by the Dutch known as the Zandtberge (the Sand Hills); these hills originally distinguished the forests of the Village from the wetlands and stream courses. Further north was the eponymous Murray Hill. "We still are an island of many hills with our buildings," Sanderson romantically mused on the walking tour.

Oysters
Pearl Street was named after the oyster shells. Oyster stands used to be ubiquitous like today's hot dog stands. Sanderson remarked that "if you dig deep enough anywhere in Lower Manhattan, you'll reach shells." Today scientists are trying to bring back and use oysters to clean polluted water bodies in Brooklyn and Queens.

Times Square
42nd street used to be a beaver pond. Beavers like streams and ponds near poplars, beech and aspens. In 1609, beavers were the major agent of deforestation and there was even a beaver management plan for NYC. Currently there is only a population of one, Jose the Beaver who has been spotted in the Bronx River.

Streams
Of the 300 original streams, Sanderson has located 89. Maiden Lane was by a stream where the Dutch women used to wash their clothes. What happened to the other streams? Now they are storm drains with combined sewer overflows (CSOs). Water can't percolate through the soil, so the drains take the water out to the rivers. But when it rains, the CSOs overflow and sewage ends up in the rivers. There is now a movement to daylight streams and open up the old streams for storm water management.

Sanderson believes his research could be used as an educational tool to bring greater environmental awareness to citizens and visitors to New York City. By understanding what once existed as in the case of the streams, we can use these as a baseline to try to restore parts of the natural environment and its functions. By looking back 400 years, we can look beyond the next pay cycle and mayoral budget to make choices about what NYC and its sustainability will be not just in 2030 but in 2430. Perhaps this intimate look at Manhattan's ecological history could serve as model for other cities.

Arina Vikdorchik, another Mannahatta fan, researched and co-edited this post
More on Manhattan
Take the High Line
Ecologist Maps Manhattan of 400 Years Ago
Antarctic Ice Chunk 7 Times Bigger than Manhattan Collapses

Tags: Conservation | Deforestation | Exhibits | New York City

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