Manhattan, 400 Years Ago

Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society

Image courtesy of the Wildlife Conservation Society

This summer will mark the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s arrival to the shores of New York, or to what was then known as the island of Mannahatta. There will be a vast array of quadricentennial (try saying that five times fast!) events up and down the river that was named after the eminent (or egregious) English explorer. But if you want to get a head start and avoid traveling too far afield, check out the Manahatta Project’s exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

The exhibit (which is part of a larger project and includes a recently released book) reveals the ecology of the island as it existed at the time of Hudson’s landing. It recreates the old growth forests, the sprawling wetlands, and the indigenous settlements from 400 years ago. One of the more interesting facet’s of the show is a large, blank topographic mock-up of the island which sits at the center of the exhibit space. Different layers of information are projected onto the blank model from overhead. One shows the foot paths and land-use patterns of the original Lenape inhabitants. Another shows soil types and ecological communities.

Another fascinating installation is the interactive Promethean Board tucked away at the back of the exhibit space. This giant touch-screen displays a Muir Web of the islands ecology and allows a stylus-wielding visitor to select single component of the ecosystem (a beaver, say) and reveal all the connections that sustained it.  These digital displays are complimented by a wealth of other, more traditional images, maps and written information.  If you aren’t in the NYC area but are still interested, definitely check out the project’s website for a less immersed experience.

While the exhibit is amazing and well worth a visit, it left me unclear about the effect and importance of such a perspective.  My friend brought this to my attention, shaking me out of a technology induced reverie, when she asked, “this is cool and everything, but so what!?”  The project creators are, obviously, keen on helping visitors develop a sense of the natural history and ecological connectedness of the area.  And, for them, this knowledge is still relevant to the island full of sky-scrapers and avenues.  But I wonder, how should we think of the 400 years that have passed since Hudson arrived?  Was the growth and development of NYC merely ecological change, or was it a process of destruction?  Are there lessons to be learned from Mannahatta or is it just a distant memory to be celebrated?

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