Topography Matters

Not to go all Faulknerian but when it comes to topography the past is never past. Although mostly unseen, it lives on in the actions of those who traverse and occupy an ecosystem.

The etymology of Manhattan is a good example. Mannahatta, “island of many hills” as the Lenape people called it, belies its tabletop vertical existence today. According to the Mannahatta Project, the 13-mile long island had 570 hills, 60 miles of streams, 20 ponds, and 300 springs. Its shores were a nexus of biodiversity with 233 kinds of birds, 85 types of fish, 627 species of plants, and 70 types of trees existing together. At 110-feet above sea level, Bayard’s Mount (corner of Mott and Grand Streets) overlooked the island’s largest body of water. The kolch, or Collect Pond, covered 48 acres – the size of two Yankee Stadiums. It was 60 feet deep filled with fish and fed by a pristine fresh water spring surrounded by wetlands.

Population growth and unchecked industry took its toll. By 1813, the Collect Pond was filled in – poorly—and eventually became the infamous Five Points, Old Brewery slums, and Tombs prison sinking under its own weight. In the future, the island’s bedrock base would anchor unborn generations, but the concept of diversity is embedded in the city’s geologic, environmental, and cultural DNA.

Mannahatta before the European occupation.

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