The Wildlife Conservation Society has created a neat project on a topic near and dear to Washington Irving’s heart, and to mine. It’s a history of New York, but with a twist — unlike Irving’s History of New York, which traced the rise and fall of the Dutch settlers, this one traces Manhattan’s ecological history.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Mannahatta Project imagines what Manhattan Island was like only hours before Henry Hudson and his men set foot on the island 400 years ago, in 1609. As the WCS puts it:
[T]he center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for perhaps 5000 years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609. It turns out that the concrete jungle of New York City was once a vast deciduous forest, home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish. In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!
The website for the project is a lot of fun, allowing you to see what New York neighborhoods looked like four centuries ago. Most familiar sites sit in what was then dense forest, while other familiar locations — like Ground Zero — would be smack in the middle of the Hudson River, centuries before groundfill molded the island to its current shape.
Go poke around on the website, and visit your favorite New York spot or neighborhood as it might have looked in 1609. And be sure to check out the real work behind the project, Eric W. Sanderson and Markley Boyer’s Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.