Mannahatta, Past, Present and Future

January 24, 2009 at 1:41 am Leave a comment

Four hundred years ago this month a legal contract was quietly negotiated that, arguably, would change the face of New York. You could even say it would point America toward the ethnic and racial diversity now personified by Barack Obama.

That winter, on Jan. 8, 1609, Dutch merchants enlisted an English navigator, Henry Hudson, to find a western sea route to the Orient. If Hudson had sailed on behalf of England, instead of Holland, New York and the nation might look very different today.

Unlike other Europeans who were fleeing religious persecution or spreading their own, the Dutch came to America to make money. Enlist in that endeavor, don’t disturb the peace, and you were welcome in New Amsterdam.

Call it tolerance. Or, indifference. Whatever the motivation, it largely worked, which is why New York developed so differently from most other American colonies.

The Dutch East India Company agreed to pay Hudson 800 guilders (or to guarantee his widow 200 guilders if he failed to return to the Old World from his voyage of discovery). Since Hudson apparently never came back to Holland, it’s unclear whether he ever collected. The contract might have proved to be an even better bargain for the Dutch than the totemic 60 guilders, or $24, deal involving Manhattan 17 years later.

Charles Gehring, director of the state’s New Netherland Project (launched by the New York State Library and the Holland Society), calls 800 guilders a good chunk of change.

“A laborer earned about one guilder a day,” Gehring says. “A cow cost about 40 guilders; a horse — like owning a Buick — about 150 guilders.

“This,” he says, “is the only way to make sense out of equivalent currency values at that time.”

As we jump-start the city’s quadricentennial, we’ve also now got a very good idea of just what Hudson saw when he got here later in 1609.

What F. Scott Fitzgerald called the “fresh, green breast of the New World” that greeted the sailors on Hudson’s Half Moon has been re-imagined by Eric Sanderson, a senior ecologist at the Bronx Zoo. His book “Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York,” is being published this spring in conjunction with an exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York.

Drawing on British military maps, Sanderson has painstakingly recreated the rolling landscape — Mannahatta meant “island of many hills,” many of which were all but leveled when the street grid was imposed in the 19th century.

Mannahatta evokes a lost world, a mirror image of Alan Weisman’s vision of nature’s resurgence in “The World Without Us.”

Sanderson’s evocative survey recreates “the old-growth forests, stately wetlands, glittering streams, teeming waters, rolling hills, abundant wildlife, and mysterious people” that Hudson encountered 400 years ago.

Per acre, Sanderson writes, Mannahatta had more ecological communities than Yellowstone, more native plant species than Yosemite, more birds than the Great Smoky Mountains.

“If Mannahatta existed today as it did then, it would be a national park,” Sanderson says. “It would be the crowning glory of American National Parks.”

But it doesn’t, which leaves Sanderson to wonder what New York will look like 400 years from now.

“New Yorkers in 2409 will still be loud, direct and pushy,” he says, but also “warm and generous and involved in what happens in the world.” He envisions a city where fossil fuels will have long ago been exhausted and where man and nature coexist.

“The thrill of the big city will not, philosophically or practically, preclude nature,” he predicts.

In 2409, Sanderson says, Mannahatta will re-emerge, “a city that all the people have created, connected by a thousand invisible cords, the fresh, green breast of a world that will thrive for another 400 years and then some.”

New York was built on what the Columbia historian Ken Jackson calls Hudson’s “river of empire” to which, in another new book [“1609: The Forgotten History of Hudson, Amsterdam and New York”], Geert Mak and Russell Shorto describe how the global financial capital was eventually transplanted from 17th-century Amsterdam.

“That is what began in 1609,” they write, “with the unlikely, brooding, mist-shrouded figure of Henry Hudson, and the development shortly after he passed from the scene of a brashly multi-ethnic and free-trading city on a blank slate of an island.”

New York Times

Entry filed under: Dive In, Get Wet, Natural Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , , .

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