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" (7). 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
for the city made the city welcome to the motorcar.
Matthews has carefully documented the history of New York back to the
Ice Age and, while her historical sections aren’t particularly
exhaustive, they present some important facts. 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.
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"
(22), 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" (55). The new, new urbanism--the
city as everywhere--leads to intrinsically unsustainable urban areas
which nonetheless contain diverse biological life.
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
eight million humans and over 28 million Norway rats. Matthews emphasizes
their unsettling presence by pointing out that in one warehouse once
10,000 rats were found. They make up the largest animal species population
in New York --and they know it.
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.
Matthews sees Manhattan as overpopulated
by one troublesome species: human beings. She compares the current
state of New York to the decline of Rome--which had ecological roots--and,
more ominously, to Europe circa 1348 when the Black Death was killing
off groups of overconcentrated humans. Matthews looks at what the
Black Death could do the New York City area today: For equivalent
effect, think of a supervirus, deliberately or accidentally let loose,
that depopulates all of Manhattan, all of Brooklyn, and still leaves
three million refugees fighting to reach an equally plagueicken
Newark, Stamford, or White Plains. (79)
New Yorkers will have to halt
their overbuilding and look at rebuilding their city so that it is
both more humane and less human. Last fall’s terrorist destruction
of the World Trade Center towers might be a good reference point when
considering how to built a new New York: one that is an ecological
city in progress, and not a polished, vulnerable political and biological target.
Of course, such a rebuilding would involve drastic changes
that would result in New York’s stepping down as a world-class city.
Thus, such a rebuilding will likely not come about through social
change. 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. I would suggest going
further, and allowing ecological policy to be set on an even smaller
level. There can be no plan to undo the effects of other plans--just
continual human response to the ecological problems that they have created.
Nature will have to return to govern the ungovernable mass
that is New York City. According to Matthews, two outcomes for New
York are likely in the next fifty years: "either a crumbling core,
with near-total transportation paralysis and deteriorating air and
water, or else a genuinely livable city" (191). Without social change,
though, the city might not become genuinely livable. If might just
continue to build as crumbles--until it is destroyed by a disaster.
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 (201). 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
Lest anyone write off her scenarios as ridiculous,
Matthews ties in her prophecies with the factual reporting in rest
of the book:
How are we going to deal in New York
and elsewhere? The glaciers will return to Manhattan in 15,000 years
or so, but hopefully a sustainable bioregion can be created there
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. Most of all, we will have to acknowledge those fluctuating,
limiting edges: between human and nonhuman, between our space in homes
and those of others, between members of societies. The city is not
everywhere; nature is.
First, if the last fifty years are any guide, most of
the stresses, dreams, disasters, and component parts of 2050 are already
with us--unrecorded, misinterpreted, buried on page D24. Second, a
rising twenty-first century ocean and a warmer twenty-first century
climate are no loner academic prediction... They’re here, we invited
them and now we must deal. (205)
C I T Y I S N O T E V E R Y W H E R E
a review of Anne Matthews' Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City,
2001, New York: North Point Press, paperback $12, ISBN #0-86547-56-01
Special to omniforum by permission of the author. This review appears in the Fall 2002 edition of Synthesis/Regeneration.