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Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

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On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set eyes on the land that would become Manhattan. It's difficult for us to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing, in words and images, the wild isla On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set eyes on the land that would become Manhattan. It's difficult for us to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing, in words and images, the wild island that millions of New Yorkers now call home. By geographically matching an 18th-century map of Manhattan's landscape to the modern cityscape, combing through historical and archaeological records, and applying modern principles of ecology and computer modeling, Sanderson is able to re-create the forests of Times Square, the meadows of Harlem, and the wetlands of downtown. Filled with breathtaking illustrations that show what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago, Mannahatta is a groundbreaking work that gives readers not only a window into the past, but inspiration for green cities and wild places of the future


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On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set eyes on the land that would become Manhattan. It's difficult for us to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing, in words and images, the wild isla On September 12, 1609, Henry Hudson first set eyes on the land that would become Manhattan. It's difficult for us to imagine what he saw, but for more than a decade, landscape ecologist Eric Sanderson has been working to do just that. Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City is the astounding result of those efforts, reconstructing, in words and images, the wild island that millions of New Yorkers now call home. By geographically matching an 18th-century map of Manhattan's landscape to the modern cityscape, combing through historical and archaeological records, and applying modern principles of ecology and computer modeling, Sanderson is able to re-create the forests of Times Square, the meadows of Harlem, and the wetlands of downtown. Filled with breathtaking illustrations that show what Manhattan looked like 400 years ago, Mannahatta is a groundbreaking work that gives readers not only a window into the past, but inspiration for green cities and wild places of the future

30 review for Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

  1. 5 out of 5

    Eliza

    I read this for the spatial modeling & GIS methods used for the Mannahatta project. In that regard, I was rewarded w/ rich detail & well-made, beautifully mapped, intensely researched work recreating the historic landscapes, hydrography, topography, habitats, soil types, & species distributions of Manhattan island in 1609. He describes the processes step-by-step of the models he wrote & the layers he overlaid, making his methods very applicable not just for his Mannahatta project, but for other I read this for the spatial modeling & GIS methods used for the Mannahatta project. In that regard, I was rewarded w/ rich detail & well-made, beautifully mapped, intensely researched work recreating the historic landscapes, hydrography, topography, habitats, soil types, & species distributions of Manhattan island in 1609. He describes the processes step-by-step of the models he wrote & the layers he overlaid, making his methods very applicable not just for his Mannahatta project, but for other scientists hoping to do similar work in other locations. What I did not like was his ridiculous assumptions of what Manhattan will be in 2409. He assumes that New Yorkers can have their cake and eat it too, w/o personal sacrifice, much in the same way that people are living now. With the global context of resource exploitation, habitat degradation, climate change, & overpopulation that the world is dealing w/ now, this is unrealistic.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Yuki Shimmyo

    I reallyreally wanted to be able to give this 5 stars. I give 5 stars for the 10 years of painstaking research, the amazing digitalized images of NYC as it would have looked the day Henry Hudson arrived 400 years ago, the old maps, botanical prints, inspiration and message. But Sanderson's text is dry and pedantic, and seems to be addressed to 8 year-olds who need the explanation that landscape is not just a bunch of shrubs to a "landscape ecologist" with a PhD such as he. In the book THE WORLD I reallyreally wanted to be able to give this 5 stars. I give 5 stars for the 10 years of painstaking research, the amazing digitalized images of NYC as it would have looked the day Henry Hudson arrived 400 years ago, the old maps, botanical prints, inspiration and message. But Sanderson's text is dry and pedantic, and seems to be addressed to 8 year-olds who need the explanation that landscape is not just a bunch of shrubs to a "landscape ecologist" with a PhD such as he. In the book THE WORLD WITHOUT US Alan Weisman's few paragraphs that refer to Eric Sanderson and his "Mannahatta Project" are what enticed me into investing in this large book (at half price, of course). If Sanderson could write with the "clarity and lyricism" of journalist Weisman, this would've been a magnificent work!

  3. 4 out of 5

    Aharon

    Typical pigeon-and-beaver propaganda.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Garrett Cash

    This not like anything I would typically read, I'm not a big earth-science guy. This book was fascinating though, and it made me want to read more scientific books that aren't slogs like the textbooks. Unfortunately the writer for the book wasn't the best (you can't expect someone to be a great writer AND scientist!). The section about the future of Manhattan made a lot of claims that seemed unnecessary and self-assured. The pictures were very interesting, and a lot of the things Sanderson says This not like anything I would typically read, I'm not a big earth-science guy. This book was fascinating though, and it made me want to read more scientific books that aren't slogs like the textbooks. Unfortunately the writer for the book wasn't the best (you can't expect someone to be a great writer AND scientist!). The section about the future of Manhattan made a lot of claims that seemed unnecessary and self-assured. The pictures were very interesting, and a lot of the things Sanderson says near the beginning of the book were quite informative. This was a very quick read, and since I'm studying New York City this was a great place to start, since it focuses on the landscape and history of New York City before the Dutch even arrived.

  5. 4 out of 5

    AJ

    Just took a look at this book today in the library. Beautiful, thick pages and stunning full color photos. What a cool project! I love the side-by-side comparisons of Mannahatta with modern day Manhattan.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Mariel

    A beautiful edition with lush, thick pages and gorgeous photographs, illustrations and maps. This is a great companion to the Welikia Project (https://welikia.org/) that focuses on a few crucial historical moments for recreating this major natural history project. I'll use this alongside Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York in my Urban History course to further develop the environmental history component of the course. I'd like to use the British Headquarters map to work on A beautiful edition with lush, thick pages and gorgeous photographs, illustrations and maps. This is a great companion to the Welikia Project (https://welikia.org/) that focuses on a few crucial historical moments for recreating this major natural history project. I'll use this alongside Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York in my Urban History course to further develop the environmental history component of the course. I'd like to use the British Headquarters map to work on some mapping lessons and maybe some comparative analysis. I'm confident that the Welikia Project would stand on it's own, but having this book helped me narrow my focus to the points that will be most accessible for me, and hopefully my students.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kate H

    I loved this book. First, it's beautiful to look at. Second, I am so impressed by this project: documenting all the flora and fauna that would have existed on Manhattan on September 12, 1609 (Contact with the Dutch). Third, Sanderson's writing is poetic, but not flowery--does that make sense? Fourth, the book is helpful and hopeful. Rather than a "Life after People" that imagines a world without people as a state we might want to return to, Sanderson thinks about how we might make Manhattan bett I loved this book. First, it's beautiful to look at. Second, I am so impressed by this project: documenting all the flora and fauna that would have existed on Manhattan on September 12, 1609 (Contact with the Dutch). Third, Sanderson's writing is poetic, but not flowery--does that make sense? Fourth, the book is helpful and hopeful. Rather than a "Life after People" that imagines a world without people as a state we might want to return to, Sanderson thinks about how we might make Manhattan better for the plants, the animals, the physical environment, and perhaps most hopefully, for the people he hopes will continue to live here in the future. Of note: couldn't get this on Amazon, library has like a million holds, but I found it in a small, independent bookshop. They should do a re-print!! P.S. Read other reviews for a more complete description of all Sanderson teaches us in this book.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Ray LaManna

    I've been effectively locked out of Manhattan, the island where I was born and raised and spect my entire working career...I miss it very much. So I decided to read a book that gives a holistic view of the island from its founding by Henry Hudson in September, 1609 to the present day. The book is fascinating...tracing neighborhoods I've known all my life back to the way they looked in 1609. I have also learned a great deal about ecology, estuaries, water flows and other topics I never studied. T I've been effectively locked out of Manhattan, the island where I was born and raised and spect my entire working career...I miss it very much. So I decided to read a book that gives a holistic view of the island from its founding by Henry Hudson in September, 1609 to the present day. The book is fascinating...tracing neighborhoods I've known all my life back to the way they looked in 1609. I have also learned a great deal about ecology, estuaries, water flows and other topics I never studied. This book is great.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Keith

    Bulk of the book was a solid 4 stars, and I’ll likely buy a copy for my US history classroom library. However, the final chapter seemed incredibly dated to me. The 70s and 80s featured a host of books making supposedly scientific predictions about future life, and the last chapter of this book fell squarely in this camp, adding, I feel, very little to the book.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Bob Ferrante

    Fascinating If you prefer your history interspersed with natural history; if you want to know as much (or more than) about what lies beneath the soil as what's on tv, you'll enjoy this fascinating journey.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Stephen Flanagan

    Beautifully presented and written. A really beautiful book.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Mary

    Exquisite.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Linda Gaines

    The maps in this book are fantastic, and it would have been great to get more closeups of those maps.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Todd Stockslager

    Illustrations by Markley Boyer Sanderson and Boyer turn detective to create a probabilistic time machine and show a plausible picture of what Manhattan could have looked like in 1609 when it was first seen by European eyes. While Boer's name is in smaller font on the cover, in reality he deserves at least equal billing because his photo-realistic overhead images of 1609 Mannahatta are spectacular enough to rate this a 5-star "What a classic!" Sanderson's text is just detailed and scientific enough Illustrations by Markley Boyer Sanderson and Boyer turn detective to create a probabilistic time machine and show a plausible picture of what Manhattan could have looked like in 1609 when it was first seen by European eyes. While Boer's name is in smaller font on the cover, in reality he deserves at least equal billing because his photo-realistic overhead images of 1609 Mannahatta are spectacular enough to rate this a 5-star "What a classic!" Sanderson's text is just detailed and scientific enough to enable the general reader to understand the difficulty of the effort and the detective nature of the work, without pulling the reader's eyes from the pictures too long. His explanation of finding the British Headquarters Map from the Revolutionary War and figuring out how to reference it to modern GPS data points to have a precise, high-resolution framework for the ecological extrapolations is better than the stuff of movies. The paper, graphics, and binding are all first rate, making this book a pleasure to hold and study closely. In some ways, this is a back-to-front version of The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's look forward to a post-human world. In both cases, the authors pick and extrapolate from available data, make realistic assumptions, and provide real-world comparative examples to show us interesting things about a world we will never be able to see without their vision. Even if you are not from New York City and have only a passing interest in it as a place to live, work, or play, the rich natural and human history of the place make this a fascinating book to daydream over.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Gabriella

    Interesting book about what Manhattan looked like in 1609, with gorgeous illustrations. I found it to be a fast read, even though the text is a bit dry. I did find the last chapter, about what Manhattan might look like in 2409, a little bit strange. Sanderson suggests abandoning subways in favor of streetcars as a form of mass transit without explaining why he thinks subways need to go. He also suggests a more "mixed use" metropolitan area, with farms returning to specific portions of Brooklyn, Interesting book about what Manhattan looked like in 1609, with gorgeous illustrations. I found it to be a fast read, even though the text is a bit dry. I did find the last chapter, about what Manhattan might look like in 2409, a little bit strange. Sanderson suggests abandoning subways in favor of streetcars as a form of mass transit without explaining why he thinks subways need to go. He also suggests a more "mixed use" metropolitan area, with farms returning to specific portions of Brooklyn, Queens, New Jersey, etc., but he spends no time discussing the amazing architecture that will be lost in many of the areas he has suggested for farming. I found the complete silence about New York's historic buildings to be a little strange in a book that otherwise praises the culture and diversity of present-day Manhattan.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    Eric Sanderson moved from California to work at the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park) and because of a British map created during the Revolutionary War, became fascinated with the idea of what Manhattan looked like before Henry Hudson arrived. This beautifully produced book should not intimidate you...it seems very long, but it is actually profusely illustrated with images of long ago Mannahatta. The original island of streams and hills was where native Americans would come to hunt and fish i Eric Sanderson moved from California to work at the Bronx Zoo (New York Zoological Park) and because of a British map created during the Revolutionary War, became fascinated with the idea of what Manhattan looked like before Henry Hudson arrived. This beautifully produced book should not intimidate you...it seems very long, but it is actually profusely illustrated with images of long ago Mannahatta. The original island of streams and hills was where native Americans would come to hunt and fish in the summer. Sanderson describes his techniques for recreating the environment clearly and it is fascinating. You can imagine the valley of Harlem, the fields and streams as they originally appeared. I would have enjoyed a little more about how "modern" New Yorkers restructured the island, but perhaps that is another book.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Stephanie

    Fascinating look at the changes in Manhattan over the past four hundred years. Having lived in the city, I love the history of how the city has changed, and I love to look at old maps of the city, fitting in the images of the way it was then with the way it is now.[return][return]From a natural history standpoint, this is a perfect example of that -- the renderings of how the island must have looked in 1609 and the descriptions of how the team that worked on the images came to make them are equa Fascinating look at the changes in Manhattan over the past four hundred years. Having lived in the city, I love the history of how the city has changed, and I love to look at old maps of the city, fitting in the images of the way it was then with the way it is now.[return][return]From a natural history standpoint, this is a perfect example of that -- the renderings of how the island must have looked in 1609 and the descriptions of how the team that worked on the images came to make them are equally fascinating. Anyone who is familiar with Manhattan will love to see the differences in the city, although perhaps only those who have been all the way uptown to Inwood and Washington Heights can truly appreciate the information presented here.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Lynn

    Mostly pictures, really interesting ones. This is a landscape ecologist's attempt to reconstruct what Manhattan island was like before Europeans arrived. He estimates that the island was occupied by humans for about 10,000 years before Hudson, but they had a much lighter footprint that the current inhabitants. Fascinating. I am starting to thing of myself as an island person. Actually, having gone through most of it, I think it is worth looking though for the pictures, but the text is highly spec Mostly pictures, really interesting ones. This is a landscape ecologist's attempt to reconstruct what Manhattan island was like before Europeans arrived. He estimates that the island was occupied by humans for about 10,000 years before Hudson, but they had a much lighter footprint that the current inhabitants. Fascinating. I am starting to thing of myself as an island person. Actually, having gone through most of it, I think it is worth looking though for the pictures, but the text is highly speculative and not that compelling. There are much better book about saving the planet and pre_Columbian America

  19. 5 out of 5

    Diane

    A beautiful book to just look at - maps, pictures, computer generated views of New York in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river. I was intrigued with the project to re-create Manhattan of 1609 and enjoyed reading about finding maps, tracing bird sightings, reading old accounts of hunting, etc. The book seems to be part of a tribute to the 400 year anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan and the parts that are paean to the city are pretty boring. But, the pictures and charts are more A beautiful book to just look at - maps, pictures, computer generated views of New York in 1609, the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river. I was intrigued with the project to re-create Manhattan of 1609 and enjoyed reading about finding maps, tracing bird sightings, reading old accounts of hunting, etc. The book seems to be part of a tribute to the 400 year anniversary of the discovery of Manhattan and the parts that are paean to the city are pretty boring. But, the pictures and charts are more than half the book and make it worth reading.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Kruip

    Sanderson and Boyer wrote a beautiful book on the natural history of Manhattan, the ecological history, the interaction of pre-European "man" and the natural habitat Mannahatta, once was. Into the heyday of the concrete city of this day and age, and a splendid view on the re-invention of the future agglomeration, especially it's turn towards ecology. Or should I rephrase? Either the necessary turn, and a possible turn, of the city-machine, into the city-greenery. If only for the natural cooling c Sanderson and Boyer wrote a beautiful book on the natural history of Manhattan, the ecological history, the interaction of pre-European "man" and the natural habitat Mannahatta, once was. Into the heyday of the concrete city of this day and age, and a splendid view on the re-invention of the future agglomeration, especially it's turn towards ecology. Or should I rephrase? Either the necessary turn, and a possible turn, of the city-machine, into the city-greenery. If only for the natural cooling capacity.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Billy

    A marvelously inventive reconstruction of Manhattan Island on the eve of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river that bears his name in 1609. Using the latest techniques of digital cartography and the science of ecology, Sanderson lays out in graphic detail what the island was like 400 years ago. An added plus is his optimistic vision of a sustainable future that we can create in this place of abundance.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    Absolutely stunning and lavishly produced work on the geographic history of Manhattan Island, from before Dutch contact through the evolution of the urban metropolis, and the effects on the surrounding ecology--oyster beds, the Hudson River, marshland, old cemeteries, storm drains, the importation of European trees, the spiritual life of the Lenape, passenger pigeons and sandbars. I wish I had been able to see the museum exhibit developed from this--you know how much I love topographical maps.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Stephen

    Fantastic pictures, reconstructing what Manhattan Island looked like when the Indians inhabited it and Europeans were just arriving. The are contrasted verso with pictures of today. We got this lovely book as a gift; it might be expensive for the library of someone who is not really interested in the history and ecology of New York City. I would love to see the author do similar views of other cities, say 12th Century London or Paris.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    This was an incredible undertaking, to recreate a detailed map of the natural world on Manhattan at the time the Dutch arrived. The book was fun to look through, but too dry to read word-for-word. I recommend taking a look at the website: http://themannahattaproject.org/ and clicking on explore to interact with the map as well. This was an incredible undertaking, to recreate a detailed map of the natural world on Manhattan at the time the Dutch arrived. The book was fun to look through, but too dry to read word-for-word. I recommend taking a look at the website: http://themannahattaproject.org/ and clicking on explore to interact with the map as well.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Davey

    After reading Two Years Before the Mast, I'd squint at the california coastline to block out buildings and highways, trying to imagine what life was like when San Diego was a dusty trader town and Los Angeles didn't have a crown of smog. This book lets me do that with manhattan, but now I don't have to squint.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Topher

    I'm not really clear why, on a search of 'Manahatta' this is the _9th_ book on the list (and "Chasing Harry Winston" is the first), but whatever goodreads... This is a massive book - but with 150 pages of appendices and thick paper for the pages, not to mention an abundance of illustrations, it's also a quick read, and a beautiful book to enjoy.

  27. 5 out of 5

    T.

    Very well done. A little too much on flora and fauna for me but that's the author's mandate for such a project. Nice historic review of the first landings of Henry Hudson, et al; the world before them; and the changes hence. Still, sad to look at the exquisite renderings and ponder deeply what was, what is and the losses of the Native Americans. Highly recommended.

  28. 5 out of 5

    s

    Nice coffee table book for New Yorkers, but it was somehow unsatisfying. It feels like a guide to how a data set was assembled, with example figures, but sans the data. This would be a perfect digital book: something that could hybridize the information and images from the book with the website interface here: http://welikia.org/explore/mannahatta... Nice coffee table book for New Yorkers, but it was somehow unsatisfying. It feels like a guide to how a data set was assembled, with example figures, but sans the data. This would be a perfect digital book: something that could hybridize the information and images from the book with the website interface here: http://welikia.org/explore/mannahatta...

  29. 5 out of 5

    J. D.

    This book is the result of a tour-de-force in historical scholarship and ecological modeling. It is well-illustrated with ordinance maps, paintings, computer-generated topographic studies, probable species lists, and many other unique visual aids. Read it. Study it.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    This wasn't quite what I expected--not just OMG there were beavers living in Midtown! It's science-oriented, but not too over the head of a lay person with a humanities degree like me. The tone was erudite, yet friendly. I also found the speculations about the future of Manhattan intriguing.

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