city is not everywhere A Review of
WILD NIGHTS
  C I T Y  I S  N O T  E V E R Y W H E R E
*  *  *  *   M  i c h a e l    R.    A l l e n

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.
         Matthews walks 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 uninhabitable ruin.
         Lest anyone write off her scenarios as ridiculous, Matthews ties in her prophecies with the factual reporting in rest of the book:
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)
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.


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.




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