Where the Chrysler Building stands, there may have been grey wolves and hoary bats. Chinatown was home to a long tidal creek and salty marsh. A Lenape trail wound through the entrance to the Brooklyn Bridge.
This was Manhattan in 1609, on the brink of European settlement, the year Henry Hudson sailed into New York Bay. It was a hugely diverse and rich landscape, threaded with trails used by Lenape indians. The island’s biodiversity per acre was “rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains,” writes the creator of the Welikia Project, landscape ecologist Dr. Eric Sanderson, who founded the project almost 20 years ago.
Welikia, which means “my good home” in Lenape, is the expansion of Sanderson’s original goal — to create a map of pre-modern Manhattan’s natural landscape to include all of the city’s boroughs. As 6SQFT pointed out recently, the project has launched a Google Maps-powered interactive map of its research, which allows you to search through every block of the city to find out what was there 400 years ago — from a comprehensive list of mammals and plant life to information about Lenape trails and camps.
The 16-year process of uncovering what once lay beneath the super-dense urban fabric was (and is) a feat of incredibly detailed historical detective work. The geological and landscape data was the simplest — it came from a 1782 map drawn by the British that included locations of more than 96km of streams, as well as 300 natural springs and plenty of wetlands, beaches, and hundreds of types of trees, plants and soil types. Not to mention dozens of hills — after all, the island’s name is derived from the Lenape word Mannahatta, or “the island of many hills.”
But figuring out the specifics of the city’s more than 50 ecological groups was more difficult, as Sanderson explains on the project’s website. They created a list of species that lived on the island, then compared them against the existing data about different environment pockets in the island, creating a web of relationships based on which species were more likely to flourish or depend on which ecologies — they call this a Muir web, after the naturalist John Muir, who popularised this idea of interconnected habitats. The data visualisation designer Chris Harrison created this Muir web of the associations between known habitats and species in Manhattan in the 17th century:
In short, it’s a sprawling project — and one that wasn’t easily parsed by the public until the launch of the interactive, block-by-block map. While work continues for the boroughs outside Manhattan, it’s amazingly cool to click around inside the island and see what was once was — or rather, probably was, based on Sanderson’s analysis.
For example, take the block that currently hosts the United Nations. Where world leaders are debating today at the General Assembly, there were tidal streams and stands of oak trees, a perfect place for Lenape fishing.
Or lower Manhattan, where the site of the World Trade Center was simply a sandy beach, and the public housing on the Lower East Side was low-lying marshland (indeed, it’s often one of the first neighbourhoods in the city to flood).
Beyond being a fascinating example of historical detective work, Sanderson (who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Manhattan) has some interesting thoughts about how seeing the original state of Manhattan helps us understand what the city could eventually look like. In a 2011 interview with the City Atlas, he had this to say:
You can’t erase nature completely. That’s sort of an anti-factual idea… In fact, what we need to be talking about isn’t with nature or without nature, but between nature. I think that’s an important idea in conservation as well. The old idea in conservation was you find a little fragment of nature and you do all you can to preserve it from the evil influences of humanity. I think what nature restoration in the city is going to mean is actually creating the potential for nature again.
In other words, the voles, bats, and wolves may be gone — but the ecological potential remains all around us. Check out the Welikia Map for more.