by ED FIGUEROA
In Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City, the Isle of Manhattan finds reimagining as a pristine slice of forestland in the Upper New York Harbor. An exhibit produced in collaboration by The Museum of the City of New York and the Wildlife Conservation Society, Mannahatta commemorates the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s landing on the southern tip of the island now known as Manhattan.
Through a multimedia approach bringing together dioramas, interactive maps, and historical documents, Mannahatta documents the impact of human settlement on an island which was once home to a host of species—from mountain lions and beavers to the now-extinct passenger pigeon. The above image pretty attractively summarizes the thrust of this work; whether teeming with lush forests and wildlife or trembling under the towering spires and wild life of a decidedly Homo sapiens bent, Manhattan has always been a site of density.
For me, a particularly interesting piece on display was a blueprint of Viele’s Sanitary and Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York, an 1865 attempt at reconstructing a view of the island’s natural features. Comparing the varied land levels and winding waterways of this map with the sort of stoic, predictable street grid of the (also displayed) Commissioner’s Plan of 1811 raises all sorts of intriguing questions. Where did all of those animals go? What might Manhattan look like if its streets had been planned differently (or not at all)? How many leisurely strolls have you taken in the middle of the Hudson River?
Viewed together with other exhibits in the museum (especially one on Manhattan’s rich maritime history and the later conversion of now-unused piers into greenspace), Mannahatta provides a fascinating (if Manhattan-centric) glance at the tension between nature, commerce, and technology in a city where the only constant is change. Highly recommended.
The Museum of the City of New York is located at 1220 Fifth Avenue. Take the 6 train to 103rd Street.