A City That Had To Be

New York, A City Made by Water

David Stone
New York, A City Made by Water

Just steps out my door, the East River ebbs and flows in a rock bed carved by glaciers in the last Ice Age. It was mistaken for a river by early European explorers. It's a major piece of the puzzle that explains how New York got to be New York.

New York City, Water Everywhere

What comes to mind when you think about New York City? Broadway? The Yankees? Donald Trump? Television networks? The United Nations?

All that, in fact the city itself, depends and always has on water.

Hometown History

My latest hometown, New York City, was one of the first places settled in America and, according to the 1820 census, the first U.S. city to pass 100,000 in population, almost all of it cramped in the narrow streets and alleys south of what is now Canal Street.

That seems a meager figure these days, now that 8,600,000 of us crowd the streets and subways of our vertical city, but it made a foundation for the most powerful nation on Earth, just 200 years later.

In 1820, by contrast, our sister city of London had a population over 1,000,000 and was growing rapidly. New York caught up. Today, both cities have similar head counts in a mix with roots from around the world that make them energetic patchworks of culture.

(The New York Times looks at water from a present day perspective.)

The fascinating story of how water, both fresh and salt varieties, built New York is as unique as any in history. With the city founded at the most beneficial place for waters to meet, location became the single greatest influence in shaping New York State and our nation as a whole.

Rivers That Are Not Rivers

Although New York City has rivers and streams, the Bronx River, for example, and Newtown Creek, both of which feed the East River - which isn't really a river, they contributed little to the population explosion that powered New York.

Neither the East River nor its westerly extension, the Harlem River, nor the Hudson River are rivers, at least not here. Except for the Hudson, they don't have sources, as real rivers do, and they don't empty into anything. They flow, but in both directions, controlled by ocean tides.

We all know them as rivers, anyway. Let's start with the oldest and best known.

The Hudson River

Originally known as the North, the Hudson's story is more complicated. As recently as 13,000 years ago, it was a river and, more than a hundred miles north of New York, it still is.

25,000 years ago, the Hudson was one of the longest rivers in North America (before it was North America, of course.) It flowed from its source in the Adirondacks down past present day Albany, through the still beautiful valleys, and just as it entered the Atlantic, it eased under the towering Palisades that still catch your attention on the Jersey side today.

In the next 10,000 years however, as the last glacial maximum, including a sheet of ice that extended from Montana to Manhattan, melted, the seas rose, extending the Atlantic Ocean far inland, swallowing most of the Hudson River and recreating it as a tidal estuary.

The Lenape Indians, who occupied Manhattan when European settlers arrived, called it, "the river that flows both ways," as the tide pushed it back and forth. Today, the tidal effect extends 150 miles, all the way to Troy.

The Hudson River is a tidal estuary with an ever bigger surprise. It's the Hudson Fjord, its bed beneath the palisades carved out by retreating glaciers.

The East River

The East River and the Harlem, a branch that continues to hug the Manhattan shore while its non fraternal twin swings east past LaGuardia Airport to join Long Island Sound, are different because neither ever was a river.

Both are gorges eroded from solid rock that filled with sea water roughly 11,000 years ago when the last North American glaciers raised the oceans enough to drown them.

The East and the Harlem are tidal straits, narrow waterways that connect the ocean to itself, the East by way of Long Island Sound, and the Harlem as it makes a sharp easterly turn through Spuyten Duyvil, the "spitting devil" that once terrified navigators, to reach the Hudson.

Neither has ever had the geologic source that defines a true river.

Rivers or not, these oceanic extensions played critical roles in making New York the powerhouse it is today.

A Wider View, New York City Histories - Shaping New York City

There are a number of good histories that tell the story of how New York City came together from the time a deal was cut with the Lenape to today's traffic jams.

Here are a couple of my favorites and some of the sources for this article. 

The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

It all started with the Dutch and the revolutionary city, New Amsterdam, they settled in the shelter of New York harbor.


Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898

I love reading history, but this book was one I couldn't put down. It hooked me like a detective novel. I couldn't wait to see what happened next.


From Farmland To Empire State

The Erie Canal

What was mockingly called "Clinton's Folly," after New York's then governor, DeWitt Clinton, began being dug in Rome, New York, in 1817, powered by a dream some of the earliest Americans had for a water connection uniting the new nation from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes.

By the time it was completed in 1925, it did just that.

Rome is in the middle of upstate, south of the Adirondacks, and the canal was built in two directions.

Engineering challenges never before seen in the history of he world were met on the spot with one of a kind constructions, like Bushnell's Basin, where earth was used to raise the canal across a natural low point.

The canal runs 363 miles from the Hudson River at Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. 36 locks make it possible to move boats the entire length by alleviating an elevation differential of 565 feet.

Engineering marvel that it was, few could have guessed how much it changed New York and the rest of a, then, young nation.

What Did The Erie Canal Do?

Nearly two-hundred years later when highways, rail lines and airports connect us easily between places, it helps to remember that, in 1825, few people ventured more than 25 miles away from the place of their birth.

Only a decade after Lewis and Clark made their historic expedition from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast and back (It took 2 1/2 years!), the Great Lakes were only slightly closer than the moon to people in New York City.

Put simply, the Erie Canal made New York rich, both the state and the city. It transformed them.

In 1817, Upstate New York was an ancient forest with a few isolated settlements, but the completion of the canal brought such lucrative opportunities, the state was clear-cut in one of the worst environmental catastrophes to ever hit the continent.

Feeder canals were dug to bring produce to the mainline as the state became overwhelmingly agrarian.

Suddenly, the manufacturing East Coast was shipping equipment west, and the west was shipping their abundant farm products east, not just to American cities but in enormous quantities to Europe.

And there was New York City, although not near the canal but, as the axis for shipping, the place where the most lucrative transactions took place.

New York became rich, not so much from making things, but from handling the transactions. Wall Street, anyone?

What initially builds cities is enough surplus to provide amenities that make them preferable to rural areas.

Safety and community came first, but for New York City, it's immense wealth also brought entertainment, tourism, banking and education. Think Broadway, book publishing, our great universities and investment in businesses you've never laid eyes on.

How New York City Was Made From Water

And May Become Drowned By It

Were it not for its relationship to water, New York would never have been born at all.

Until the devastation that European settlement brought to natives, the Lenape continued to enjoy their protected paradise.

But in the so-called Age of Discovery for the seagoing powers, the Dutch, the British, the Spanish and the Portuguese, a harbor like they found protected by what is now known as the Verrazano Narrows had immense value.

Add to that the Hudson with its reach far into the interior and New York City was irresistible.

Before the Dutch finally left the city to the British, their mark was distinctive in the cultural and established governance. Dutch liberality was not overwhelmed by British influence, and it contributed considerably to democracy in the Americas.

After the Age of Discovery

When Europe's superpowers stopped fighting, Manhattan began to grow, fed by trade from the east as the old continent began to saturate the new. Again, it seemed like everything benefited by passing through New York, where a little bit of value was taken in every passage.

New York was for a time overrun by feral and domestic pigs, polluted beyond imagination and the home of one of the world's worst slums, the Five Corners.

But the metropolis surged, anyway, becoming the the first American city to pass the 100,000 in population in 1820. The division between the wealthy and the impoverished that still scars the city was evident as the British carried over their traditional class divisions.

Also fed by water were docks that lined lower Manhattan on both the Hudson and East River sides. Goods to and from Europe and the interior were loaded and unloaded daily.

Along the East River in Brooklyn and Manhattan, manufacturing exploded, and in the days of environmental darkness, made it one of the most polluted places in the world as waste, both human and manufacturing, was dumped without limits into what seemed like endless water.

New York Tides

We know about ocean tides, but the social tides in New York City were slower but not less dramatic.

Prosperity eventually lifted human tides throughout the city. Immigrants came to build the subways, work the docks, man the police and fire forces, and to establish ethnic communities where newcomers could seek their dreams among others like themselves.

When you look at the wealth of Donald Trump and that of an average high school graduate in New York, fairness in opportunity or privilege are not terms that come to mind.

Even so, the abundance that water brought New York spills over enough that the city is still the place where few young people leave and to which many from all over the world hope to migrate.

It's expensive as hell, but it's also the safest big city in the nation and ripe with greater opportunities in many fields than anywhere else.

Water delivered New York City amenities like theater, music and education unmatched. The surplus brought parks and political clout. Living here, you can't help thinking you're in the middle of everything.

New York City, Water and the Future

Here's where things get tricky.

In 2012 came the surge from Super Storm Sandy, flooding the city far past anything before it.

I watched out my window as water quickly rose over the sea wall, flooded the small park behind our building and stopped at our doorstep. We're lucky that the builders had the foresight not to include a foundation, placing all the vulnerable essential above the water line.

But Sandy was a harbinger.

Global warming will continue to raise sea levels worldwide, and unchecked, as our political gridlock suggests they will be, salt water will relentlessly take over New York as it once did the long river known as the Hudson.

A Legacy from Water

Eighty years ago, commerce by water brought jobs and wealth to New York. It's done that since its ideal harbor drew explorers looking for ports to exploit the wealth of a new continent.

New York is an natural position to be built from water resources. They've been brilliantly used to create enormous wealth, wealth that brought the theater, art education and banking that makes it America's most influential location today.

The same natural attribute, proximity to water, may also be what destroys it in the next century.

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