Steinberg (History and Law/Case Western Reserve Univ.; American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, 2006, etc.) returns with an illuminating text that adheres strictly and powerfully to its subtitle.
The author performs a grand public service in this work examining the history of “one of the most drastically transformed natural environments in the world.” He begins with what Henry Hudson would have seen in 1609 (virtually nothing remains the same), then marches resolutely forward for more than 400 years, describing everything from the “purchase” of the island from the Native Americans to changes wrought under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. A number of themes and subjects re-emerge: the visit George Washington made in the spring of 1789, the decision to arrange the streets in the form of a strict grid, the determination to reclaim land from the rivers and the sea, the destruction of the vast marshes (time-lapse charts show their shocking disappearance), changes in the wildlife brought about by human intervention (Manhattan used to be known for its wolves), the decisions about garbage and sewage that have had long-term consequences, and the threats now facing the area due to climate change and powerful storms (Hurricane Sandy finally prompted dilatory politicians to action). Steinberg also examines the political forces at work throughout the island’s last few centuries—forces not always at work in the public interest. The text overflows with arresting details. The once-booming sale of human manure, the construction of the Croton Aqueduct, the projects of Robert Moses, the effects of the 1939 World’s Fair, and construction of the Pulaski Skyway, the Meadowlands and Battery City Park—all appear in the view of the author’s ecological lens. He also gives us glimpses of the dangers confronting Gothamites—among them, extreme heat events and the rising ocean levels.
Richly researched and illustrated—a wholly edifying account.