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City Is Not Everywhere
review by Michael R. Allen, The Ampersand
Anne Matthews’ Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, 2001, New York: North Point Press, paperback $12, ISBN #0-86547-56-01
In Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, Anne Matthews intends to prove that New York City is headed into an ecological catastrophe that will shut down the city as we know it—unless more people pay attention to the destructive practices in their own lives. Although her chapters on the city’s intrepid birders, rangers and nature-lovers might say otherwise, Matthews believes that New Yorkers are foolishly ignorant of their own city. Matthews writes that “messing too much with the natural world generally hands an urban culture one of three outcomes: a transformed life, a lesser life, a long night.” New York is headed into a long night if it continues to exploit its ecology for penthouse lifestyles.
I write “penthouse lifestyles” intentionally because the lives of the economically and politically privileged are those that have shaped the disastrous real estate boom on Manhattan—something that Matthews ignores. Matthews merely chastises planners like Robert Moses—she still calls him a “genius”—whose highway system destroyed human and animal neighborhoods in the 1930s and whose anthropocentric plans made the city welcome to the motorcar.
Matthews has carefully documented the history of New York back to the Ice Age. She clearly understands the conflict between natural time and social time that is the source of the perceived human need to destroy their natural homes. A case in point on Manhattan is the history of a creek flowing through what is now downtown, the Minetta Water. While the human need to develop lower Manhattan led to the Minetta’s being channeled and concealed, the water is on a different time, still flowing underground. Someday, Matthews recognizes, rising ocean levels might bring it out of hiding.
The new, new urbanism—the city as everywhere—leads to intrinsically unsustainable urban areas…
As the most complicated city in North America, New York has effectively erased older ways of defining human settlement. New York has become a “galactic city” where the suburbs and city are one large metropolitan area stretching from eastern Pennsylvania to central Connecticut. In this mess of human life, urban centers are being created by each dweller—Manhattan becomes just one choice for a center. Matthews mourns the loss of centers and edges, which have biological as well as political consequences: “fewer and fewer of us remember a common landscape in four sharp clear flavors: urban, suburban, cultivated, wild.” The new, new urbanism—the city as everywhere—leads to intrinsically unsustainable urban areas which nonetheless contain diverse biological life.
Matthews walks with Jerrold Kayden, a Harvard Law professor, as he tries to enter all of the building plazas on Manhattan. These plazas, which are legally opened to the public, have been built by developers using a law that allows more floors on their buildings in exchange for “green space.” Not surprisingly, these spaces are frequently in disrepair and even more frequently not open to the public. Although one-fourth of New York is open space, most of it is not really public space.
In a city where almost all space has been commodified, only plants and nonhuman animals use all of New York City without restriction. Locust trees manage to grow on five-story walls above train tunnel openings, urban honeybees pollinate rooftop combs, crabgrass breaks through sidewalks and, of course, rats gambol freely. In New York City, there are over 8 million humans and over 28 million Norway rats. Matthews emphasizes their unsettling presence by pointing out that in one warehouse 10,000 rats were found. They make up the largest animal species population in New York—and they know it.
Although one-fourth of New York is open space, most of it is not really public space.
While people don’t get to use all of New York directly, they indirectly shape all of it. The huge sewers handle over a billion gallons of wastewater a day, running underground alongside the old channeled freshwater creeks. Pavement covers much of the city, even the supposed “open” spaces. Garbage is everywhere, including the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island where a heap of trash is the tallest elevation in the bioregion. And Manhattan itself is largely a human product: nearly half of it is made of seismically unstable landfill. All humans have done is push these systems out of visible life—they still threaten human life in the area, which is Matthews’ main point in the book.
The efforts of those like Alexander Brash, who is trying to reintroduce native plants and animals to stabilize the ecology in the city, will have to be drastically accelerated to forestall even small problems in the future. Matthews wisely suggests separating the boroughs of New York into different cities so that at the least humans can try to solve problems close to home.
Matthews outlines several chilling scenarios of the destruction of New York in 2050 through natural disaster. Although an earthquake is least likely, even a probable small hurricane in what is ruled to be “the most dangerous storm-surge area in the nation” would likely spell the end of Manhattan and the subways. Since most of Manhattan is less than five feet about sea level, a projected three-foot rise in the sea level by 2050 will render much of the island a watery and uninhabitable ruin.
The glaciers will return to Manhattan in 15,000 years or so, but hopefully a sustainable bioregion can be created long before then. We will have to develop a politics that acknowledges it only applies to human social relations, and can go no further. We will have to acknowledge that we are residents both of a society and a bioregion. The city is not everywhere; nature is.