Then Mannahatta Hilly Green

Four hundred years ago, the island featured 570 hills, over 60 miles of streams and at least 20 ponds. A vast abundance of wildlife inhabited this yet uncharted region: 24 species of mammals, 233 birds, 32 reptiles, 85 fish and 627 species of plants. In fact, the diversity of its wildlife was as diverse as its ethnic diversity was to become centuries later.

Because of its hills, the native Lenapes named the island Mannahatta (believed to mean “island of many hills”) and, if it existed today as it did then, it would be a national park; the “crowning glory of American national parks,” according to landscape ecologist Eric W. Sanderson. Today, the island is simply Manhattan Island, the heart of New York City.

Sanderson just completed a ten-year long study/ recreation of Manhattan Island circa 1609, the year of Henry Hudson’s arrival in this new land. A masterful book and exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York are the results of his work. Working in close collaboration with the Wildlife Conservation Society, Sanderson’s research was vividly brought to life by Abbott Miller who designed both the book and exhibition, featuring Markley Boyer’s realizations of Manhattan’s “once verdant woodlands, broad meadows and crystalline wetlands.”

Beginning with a 1782 British Headquarters Map, which Sanderson used geolocation to identify over 200 control points on the map to align to their current/ then their 1609 positions to create a virtual model with an error margin of only 40 meters. Visitors to the exhibition are transported to another time through a set of impressive 6’ x 6’ images, in scale and back-lit with fluorescent lighting, similar to a camera obscura. This exhibition is truly one of the MCNY’s finest in a long time and, along with the book, is a must for anyone even casually interested in New York.

Mannahatta/Manhattan: A Natural History of New York City

(originally posted: 08/07/09)