Thursday, June 22, 2006

Robert Moses, Volume One

One of my projects for this summer is to better understand Robert Moses. Moses, an unelected bureaucrat who held incredible power in the New York City government between the depression and the 1950s, has been known variously through history as a a savior of corrupt government and as a despot, as a champion of parks and public housing and as a racist, a visionary of the 20th-century city and as a scapegoat for the 20th-century city.

Robert Moses portrait by Arnold NewmanThese days, the reputation of Robert Moses (left, in a famous portrait by Arnold Newman) usually runs towards the latter, less favorable of these pairs. In some cases, this is merely comeuppance: Moses was undoubtedly racist, for example, and many of his projects shoved inner city neighborhoods into steep decline after the second world war. Robert Caro's 1974 biography of Moses, The Power Broker, is another major contributing factor to Moses's bad reputation. Caro ruthlessly deconstructs all of the careful political machinations that Moses used to get his projects built, and, with the benefit of hindsight, documents the effects that Moses inflicted on neighborhoods and the city in general. The Power Broker won the Pulitzer Prize, and remains the authoritative volume on the man's political life.

My most direct acquaintance with Moses comes from the West Side Highway, a six-lane freeway that decapitates the summit of Inwood Hill from the Hudson River waterfront. Yesterday I made the hike down through a pair of little-used underpasses to Inwood Hill Park's riverfront ballfields, a pretty bleak place where the fields are dusty and the trees, nourished on thin soil over landfill, provide scraggly shade. The ballfields were Moses's offering to the park to compensate for the highway that would slice it in two; today, that offering is paltry, and thanks to the highway, it's almost impossible to get there anyhow.

Nevertheless, I'm a little bit suspicious of Caro's biography, which, after all, was written at a time when New York City was on the verge of bankruptcy, race wars, and other crises (the book is subtitled "Robert Moses and the Fall of New York", which seems melodramatic here in 2006). Moses seems too convenient a scapegoat for all of these problems, especially when every other large American city also built racist freeways and housing projects, and experienced the same consequences, without Robert Moses around. Robert Moses was simply a very effective executor of the dominant urban planning theories of the day, and up until his retirement, the majority of New York's intelligentsia (including, with an almost religious reverence, the editors of The New York Times) supported his projects.

Caro seems a little too vindictive in his writing, as when he criticizes Moses for building playgrounds at the edges of parks: Caro treats this as a kid-hating scheme to keep children out of the great outdoors. I don't see it that way: where playgrounds are concerned, I'm more inclined to agree with Moses and say that they're better placed accessibly, near active streets, rather than deep in the woods.

Even Caro admits that Moses did some good work: he created dozens of new parks all over the metropolitan region, opened up new public beaches, and built crucial infrastructure that no one else could build. Even his housing projects, long derided as racist slums, remain today (with renovations) as crucial elements of affordable housing in a superheated real estate market.

So, for now, I'm inclined to look at Moses with ambivalence: a man whose failures were partly a product of his times, and whose successes were often incidental. It's telling, however, that as New York City enters the 21st century flush with money and ambition, it has few plans to "correct" the "mistakes" of Robert Moses.

To be continued...

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Wild, but not quite pristine

Last week I wrote a bit about Inwood Hill's Forever Wild designation. And the park is undoubtedly wild, with dozens of different plant species and abundant fauna. Inwood Hill and its contiguous greenspaces are wild enough to hide certain critters that are officially "banned" from Manhattan by city policy, including white-tailed deer, the occasional coyote, and a pack of feral dogs. On the more remote hill-top paths, you're likely to see fewer people than one would see on most White Mountain trails in New Hampshire at the same time of year.

At the same time, the park is not as "pristine" or "untouched" as it may seem at first glance. In fact, evidence of human influence and habitation is extensive.

This map of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek in the 1890s, courtesy of Forgotten NY, shows Inwood Hill in the lower right corner, just south of where the creek/canal meets the Hudson River (the body of water on the map's left edge). Visible on this map are several buildings and a road where today there is only forest. During the 19th century, the hill was home to several country estates for wealthy Manhattan families, like the Lords of Lord and Taylor, and to a handful of institutions like a hospital and a "House of Mercy" for women. Most of these buildings were accessed by Bolton Road, which remains to this day as a park path.

The hill's extensive poison ivy has kept me from searching the woods for the old foundations, but a few masonry ruins are still visible from park paths (especially Bolton Road). It's much easier to find botanical evidence of the old mansions, which had extensive gardens that probably introduced many of the park's non-native species.

Anyone who is familiar with the park knows of a giant copper beech tree, its smooth bark carved extensively with initials. Since the tree seems to be well over 100 years old, and since this ornamental variety of a common beech is non-native with none like it anywhere nearby, it seems likely that this tree was planted for one of the estates. Garlic mustard, a biennial that is having a banner year on the western side of the hill, and the park's many daylilies are also likely descendants of pre-war garden plants.

People have also shaped this park in a very literal way. Compare the map above with this Revolutionary War map of northern Manhattan, from the Columbia Map Library. This one shows the original course of Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which was modified after the Civil War when the federal government dug the first Ship Canal. The first Ship Canal eliminated the big oxbow bend near the mouth of the old creek, which subsequently silted up and became a marsh. The first canal also cut off Marble Hill from Manhattan. A modern satellite image shows the course of the second and current Ship Canal, dug in the late 1930s. The peninsula at the park's northeastern corner (where our nature center is located) is actually a piece of the Bronx that the second canal reattached to Manhattan with landfill. South and west of the peninsula is the old course of the first canal, which has since silted up and become our salt marsh; Columbia University accesses their boathouse on another section of the former canal to the east of the peninsula. The old course of Spuyten Duyvil Creek is also visible here as a crescent of green surrounding Marble Hill.

The ship canal and the old estates are only a few of the more recent instances of human influence at Inwood Hill Park. But the park also has several archaeological sites associated with the Revolutionary War, and Manhattan's oldest known human residence is also inside the park's boundaries. More about these on another occasion.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The eagles of Manhattan

Unlike the rest of Manhattan's parks, most of Inwood Hill has never been landscaped, and its forest is protected by New York's "forever wild" designation. The state has also been making major efforts to restore water quality and wildlife in the Hudson River in recent years, following extensive PCB contamination from a General Electric plant upstream (a topic which will soon receive a blog entry of its own).

As a part of the city's and the state's efforts to restore ecosystems of the Hudson estuary, Inwood Hill Park has hosted a bald eagle hack site for the past five years. This summer, in the fifth and final year of the program, four newborn eaglets from Wisconsin are nesting and growing their flight feathers on a guarded platform that has a spectacular view of upper Manhattan. In a few weeks, they'll be sent out to try their wings; by the end of the summer, they are expected to leave the park and fend for themselves.

After a five or six year period of adolescence, the eagles will develop the characteristic white head feathers and may return to the New York City area. Parks biologists are hoping that one or two of the eagles brought up five years ago in Inwood Hill Park may return to the lower Hudson this summer. Even if they don't return to Manhattan proper, there is plenty of decent eagle habitat across the river in the Palisades of New Jersey.

A live video feed of the eagles in their hack site can be found at the park web link above.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Hi there.

I owe this weblog an apology for my extended neglect. After a busy and internet-less spring spent renovating Lakes of the Clouds Hut for the AMC's construction crew, I've made a substantial change in scene, if not in employment.

I'll be working this summer as an urban park ranger for New York City's Department of Parks and Recreation. The place where I live, Brooklyn, has little in common with my former residence in the mountains. However, the place where I work, Inwood Hill Park at the northern tip of Manhattan, is a designated Forever Wild site with views of the Palisades, a bald eagle hack site, and forests older than those found in the Whites.

I plan to use this weblog this summer as a place to talk about this bit of Manhattan wilderness and how the country's largest city relates to its environment. Thanks for reading.