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Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York Hardcover – June 3, 2014

4.8 out of 5 stars 13 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Environmental historian Steinberg (American Green, 2006) takes us to the Island of Many Hills, a teeming paradise rich in springs, marshes, forests, and wildlife. Four hundred years later, Mannahatta, now the borough of Manhattan, is utterly transformed. Steinberg believes that we will be more prepared for the future by knowing about New York’s ecologically lush past and all the financial, social, and political imperatives behind the phenomenal engineering feats that eradicated it. The massive changes began with the Dutch, who zealously drained wetlands and decimated oyster reefs, followed by the English, who dumped filthy fill into the harbor to extend the land out to deep water where ships could dock. With eye-popping facts and wide-ranging commentary, Steinberg tracks the acceleration of drainage, deforestation, and land-making as well as the booming human population, the building of an ever-more elaborate infrastructure, and the monstrous production of waste. As skyscrapers rose, biodiversity plummeted. Here, too, are telling profiles of the men responsible for Greater New York’s metamorphosis, from John Randel Jr., creator of the city’s grid plan, to the infamous urban mastermind, Robert Moses. Assessment of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation caps Steinberg’s fascinating and cautionary unnatural history, a staggering epic of human will, might, and folly that affirms a crucial truth, “the control of nature is an illusion.” --Donna Seaman

Review

"Steinberg accessibly traces the harbor’s natural history from the booming colonial market in underwater (literally) property and the prescient Manhattan grid plan, both of which fueled development, to the lessons delivered by Hurricane Sandy.... [Steinberg] challenges the conventional arguments that geography is destiny and that New York is an “infinite proposition” — a perpetually renewable resource. And he makes the strong case that for all the ecological advantages of urban living, hyperdensity by itself is not necessarily a sound environmental strategy" (The New York Times)

"How did the lush ecosystems of the lower Hudson Valley become one of the world’s premier urban centers, dedicated to the illusion that it could somehow transcend the constraints of the natural world? Ted Steinberg’s explanation in Gotham Unbound is erudite, wise, unfailingly readable—and alarming as hell. This is environmental history at its best, and a must-read for anyone who has ever wondered what lies ahead for New York City." (Edwin Burrows, coauthor of the Pulitzer Prize winning Gotham)

"Magnificently demonstrated in this unique, highly revealing history of Greater New York, prize-winning author Ted Steinberg is a pioneer in the field of ecological history. From Henry Hudson's magical discoveries in 1609 to Hurricane Sandy's rampant destruction, Steinberg narrates four centuries of never-ending landed fill-ins, destruction of estuaries, and building. Every page about this eastern landed frontier reveals the world's leading city from a fresh, crucially important perspective." (Walter LaFeber, winner of the Bancroft Prize and Tisch University Professor Emeritus, Cornell University, and author of The American Age)

"This is the best history of an American city I have read—stunningly original, brilliant in research and argument, delightful to read, and vital for our urban future. Whatever New Yorkers may have achieved in the accumulation of wealth or social wellbeing, they have written a tragic story in ecological terms. Henceforth we will not be able to think of the city without also thinking of it as one of the world’s most damaged estuaries and of the teeming diversity of plant and animal life that once lived here." (Donald Worster, winner of the Bancroft Prize, University of Kansas and Renmin University of China, author of A Passion for Nature: The Life of John Muir)

"Gotham Unbound goes deeper than underground history; it is underwater history! Steinberg shows how the development of Manhattan's waterways and lands -- often out of sight -- shaped the creation of today's New York City. He reminds us that unnatural cities stubbornly remain part of the natural world -- and that world has a history. To really understand New York City, leave Wall Street behind, put on your hip-waders, and jump in the bog." (Louis Hyman, Cornell University)

"Steinberg brings to the center of New York's history what nowadays we mostly see only at its edges: the sea breezes and river currents, the creatures that swarm under and the ships that sail over the harbor's waters - waters on which the city's inhabitants have advanced with waste and fill for centuries. Even the trim outlines of Manhattan island represent the boundaries of aggressive settlement, as human New Yorkers, like successful Canutes, have pushed back the tides. Steinberg's story shows how literally the city is the product of ambition and invention, its very shorelines the result of commercial desires. Lively, deeply researched, and well told, a pleasure to read and cogitate upon." (Eric Rauchway, University of California, Davis)

"Ted Steinberg has written a historical masterpiece-- a remarkably original and superbly crafted book about the relentless making and unmaking of the landscape of America’s greatest, most protean city. Gotham Unbound will enlighten anyone who cares about the past and future of New York." (Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation and editor, Dissent)

"The story of how the wild and woodsy Isle of Manhatta in 1609 became the hyperdense city of today. In the centuries-long war between New York and nature, nature lost virtually every battle—but then suddenly, in 2012, Hurricane Sandy exposed the dangers of denial. Ted Steinberg has written a magnificent book that transforms our understanding not just of New York City but of the future that faces all of us." (Jon Wiener, Univ. of Calif., Irvine)

"Gotham Unbound is much more than a brilliant book about a great city. I am awed by Ted Steinberg’s ability to make so sprawling a story into a powerful parable about the challenge – and the ultimate folly – of aspiring to limitless growth." (Adam Rome, author of The Genius of Earth Day: How a 1970 Teach-In Unexpectedly Made the First Green Generation)

“Like each of his earlier books, Steinberg's Gotham Unbound is a revelation: in this case of the water world that New York once was and thanks to global warming may yet become again." (Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles)

“What happens when one of America’s great environmental historians studies one of America’s great cities? The result, revealed in the pages of Gotham Unbound, bursts with as many fascinating characters and unforgettable stories as Manhattan itself." (Karl Jacoby, author of Crimes Against Nature)

"The great American city now has a fresh, insightful history that will open readers’ eyes to the ongoing role of nature in an evolving metropolis. It’s a grand account, epic in scope and full of amazing revelations. Give this book to anyone who cares about environmental and urban studies and keep a copy for yourself." (Clyde A. Milner, author of As Big As the West: The Pioneer Life of Granville Stuart)

"Describing an island estuary that became one of the world’s most densely populated cities, this fascinating, encyclopedic history views three centuries of continuous transformation of greater New York City through an ecological lens." (Publishers Weekly (starred))

"Richly researched and illustrated—a wholly edifying account." (Kirkus (starred))

"Steinberg's fascinating and cautionary unnatural history [is] a staggering epic of human will, might, and folly that affirms a crucial truth, “the control of nature is an illusion.” (Booklist (starred))

“[W]eighty and wonderful… Resting on a sturdy foundation of research and imagination, Steinberg's volume begins with Henry Hudson's arrival aboard the Half Moon in 1609 and ends with another transformative event – Hurricane Sandy in 2012.” (The Plain Dealer (Cleveland))
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 544 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; 1st edition (June 3, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1476741247
  • ISBN-13: 978-1476741246
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1.7 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.8 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (13 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #425,631 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In the early 1800s, New York surpassed Philadelphia to become the nation's largest city. During the following two centuries, it grew as rapidly as the continuously expanding United States, and now contains 6% of the nation's population. Much of that population is concentrated on Manhattan Island, which has a density of nearly 70,000 persons per square mile. Manhattan is, as author Ted Steinberg notes, "the heart of one of the most dramatically transformed natural environments in the world."

Steinberg is one of the nation's foremost environmental historians, and has previously written the highly-regarded Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History (2002, 2012). That history of America "from the ground up," provided a sweeping overview of more than four centuries of changes in the nation's environment. The core of its narrative described the changing ways generations of Americans viewed, interpreted, and attempted to reshape and control the American environment. Steinberg continues this theme in his latest book, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York. He narrows his focus, however, to the bi-state area of southern New York and Northeast New Jersey generally known as Greater New York. This includes all the waters, wetlands, islands and continental upland located, roughly, within a 20-mile radius of the tip of lower Manhattan and the mouth of the Hudson River.
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In Gotham Unbound, Steinberg describes "how, over centuries, people have come to understand, define, and ultimately transform New York's land, water and its plant and animal life." He emphasizes that "New York exists in the estuary of the Hudson River, where freshwater meets the Atlantic.
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I enjoyed this book, which I received as a gift for winning a drawing. The author provides a highly researched study of the ecological history of the greater New York area and his supporting appendicies and bibliography are substantial. While this is primarily an academic treatise, the reader interested in the subject from a more casual mode will not be disappointed as it provides many historical and anecdotal tidbits to keep the interest level from fading away. It is not overly technical and gives us a window into the area's past, historically, politically, and scientifically. It isn't a casual summer read, but it is interesting and informative.
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This is one of the most engaging books I've ever read on urban studies and the intersections between the natural and built environments, It starts with a survey of what we seem to know before and at the time of Henry Hudson's arrival, and it sweeps through to the present. It's got everything from political corruption, real estate booms in the early 1800s, the destruction of the Meadowlands and the wrecking of the rivers. It makes so much sense now why the patterns of flooding occurred during Hurricane Sandy. I've recommended it to at least ten people since I read it.
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A look at the ecological history of paved-over Greater New York City. The story is one of unending fill dropped onto the estuaries and seashore. Large natural oyster beds disappeared, along with all the other wildlife of the city. Fish were forced out of the local waters by lowering oxygen levels, replaced by different species in smaller numbers. In the end, 2012's Hurricane Sandy slashed through reclaimed areas while laughing at the minor efforts made to counter storm damage and flooding, largely ignored by an attitude that expansion potential is unlimited. Of course, even after Sandy, developers continue to promote expansion and reclamation, murmuring about the Dutch reclamation model. An interesting look at the history of the era that largely bypasses the people and the politics but shows the impact of both on the land and the non-human life that existed there, aside from those people who lived off that land and were ignored, victims of ambition, greed, and the Greater Good. A valuable look at the impact of the city's expansion, although I wonder if it is avoidable. New York was perhaps the victim of its obvious value as a potential seaport. There seems to be a certain inevitability in what happened. And with ambitious egomaniacs like Trump roosting in the city throughout its history, how can the outcome have been different? Illustrated with no photos but numerous maps from different periods of development.
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I think you should read this book if you interested in NYC history, it is an interesting look at NYC history through the lens of geography and hydrology. The boom get sermony towards the end and author spends a lot of time preaching his gospel of limits to urban growth. That part gets a bit old. But I would still recommend this book.
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I found the book very timely, after living through and witnessing the disastrous impact hurricane Sandy had on the metropolitan New York/New Jersey area. For too long we have been blaming Mother Nature for all the natural disasters that affect us. It was enlightening as well as alarming to learn from Mr. Steinberg how man has significantly contributed to, or compounded the effects of natural events.
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