Tim Maly writes about the true architectural marvels of New York, not the skyscrapers, the low-slung brownstones, or the magnificent suspension bridges, but the rivers and islands and shorelines of the city itself:
In 1660, Pearl Street ran along the shore. Captain Kidd had a waterfront property at the corner of Pearl and Wall. Today, that site lies three blocks inland. In the 1690s, the City sold water lots to private would-be landowners, each forty feet wide. Purchasers agreed to infill forty feet into the river, leaving space for public access wharves on the far side. These wharves became Water Street, which is itself two blocks away from the shore today, thanks to subsequent infill.
When these areas were built up, landscapers didn’t build very high. As sea levels rise and the climate becomes increasingly wild, we now have a series of artificial flood plains populated by people who did not sign up to be residents of a flood plain.
You can roughly trace Manhattan and Brooklyn’s original shorelines by looking at a map of the flood zones. Take away Zone A, and you get a pretty good picture of the ancient boundary between water and land. Some of that territory didn’t use to be land at all. Much of it was marsh and wetland.
“The High Line,” Tim writes, “is an architectural marvel made possible by the dredging of Newark Bay.”
Tim’s essay reminds me of two of my favorite pieces of writing. The first, “Atchafalaya,” by the great John McPhee, is probably the classic account of human’s semi-tragic, quasi-doomed, but all-too-real attempts to remake and restabilize the relentless natural wonders on which we’re precipitously perched.
The consequences of the Atchafalaya’s conquest of the Mississippi would include but not be limited to the demise of Baton Rouge and the virtual destruction of New Orleans. With its fresh water gone, its harbor a silt bar, its economy disconnected from inland commerce, New Orleans would turn into New Gomorrah… The industries were there because of the river. They had come for its navigational convenience and its fresh water. They would not, and could not, linger beside a tidal creek. For nature to take its course was simply unthinkable. The Sixth World War would do less damage to southern Louisiana. Nature, in this place, had become an enemy of the state.
The second is from Franz Kafka’s unfinished novel Amerika (also called The Man Who Disappeared). In the original draft of the book, Kafka gets key details of New York City’s geography “wrong,” so his editor Max Brod “corrected” them in the early published version. But I think Kafka’s absurd, imaginary architecture (restored in this translation) was entirely deliberate and from the standpoint of literature is actually far superior:
The bridge connecting New York to Boston hung delicately over the Hudson, and it trembled when you squinted to see it. It seemed entirely without traffic and underneath it ran an inanimate, smooth belt of water. Everything in both of these giant cities seemed empty and pointlessly displayed. As for the buildings, there was barely any difference between the large ones and the small. In the invisible deep of the streets, the bustle went on after its own manner, but nothing moved above it except for a light haze which wouldn’t be pushed away, but it was as if you could chase it away without any effort. Even in the harbor, the largest in the world, it was quiet, and only here and there, influenced by your memory of seeing it up close, you might believe you saw a ship pushing on for a short stretch. But you couldn’t follow it for long, it escaped from your eyes and couldn’t be found anymore.
Besides, it’s not as if the geography of New York is fixed and immutable anyways. We’ve built things nearly as flabbergasting as this.