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Split view of Manhattan, l c. 1609, r. todaySplit image of Manhattan in 1609 and present day. Image via Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City

A small, verdant island on the starboard side of his ship attracted Henry Hudson as he sailed up the river on the edge of North America.  The Lenape Indians called this lush and fertile island Manahatta, meaning “island of many hills.” The book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City by Eric Sanderson reveals a portrait of a quiet, wooded island at the mouth of a great river in 1609 when Hudson’s Half Moon sailed up the river that bears his name today. Sanderson has launched Welikiameaning “my good home,” in an effort to show what the five boroughs looked like in 1609. 

Dr. Eric Sanderson works as a Senior Conservation Ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and their global conservation program that most folks associate with preserving elephant  populations in Africa or big cats in Asia.  The WCS asked Sanderson to map the ecology of Manhattan back to the time of its original inhabitants, the Lenape. Along with his WCS colleagues and Markley Boyer, who created maps and visualizations, a quiet, wooded island at the mouth of a great river that was to become one of the greatest cities on the face of the globe was recreated.

Manhattan-then and now-welikia-untapped cities-NYC.15 PMScreenshot of Manhattan in 1609 surrounded by present-day boroughs. Image via Welikia

Sanderson now plans to map the historical ecology of all five New York City boroughs. His team has already begun to map the historical ecology of the Bronx, New York’s only borough connected to the mainland. Headquartered at the Bronx Zoo, their team uses computers to piece together and layer historical maps, geological studies and elevation models to reconstruct what New York’s boroughs looked like 400 years ago.

central park - welikia - untapped cities - nyc.38 PMScreenshot of Central Park in 1609. Image via Welikia

Today’s Manhattan is an island known for its canyons of steel and concrete rather than its rolling hills.  Sanderson reveals the streams, ponds and hills hidden by today’s city grid system. Using his map, you can explore any block of the city to reveal the topography and wildlife of the area in 1609. We chose to look at what some of New York’s current green spaces looked like in 1609. Central Park’s Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir appeared to have a creek running through it that was surrounded by marsh land; Tompkins Square Park, now known for its rats, used to be primarily populated by Meadow Voles and the White-footed mouse; and Bryant Park was once a dense coastal Oak Hickory forest.

Tompkins Square Park - Welikia - NYC - Untapped Cities .48 PMScreenshot of wildlife data in Tompkins Square Park in 1609. Image via Welikia

Taking his work to the next level, Sanderson is now working on presenting Manhattan 400 years in the future.  He imagines New York City as a paradise of green and open spaces, flowing streams with teaming wildlife with services such as transportation buried beneath the surface of the island. As proof of his vision and the returning health of New York City’s ecology, Sanderson points to campaigns such as those by the Bronx River Alliance that have cleared invasive species from the shores of the Bronx River and cleared debris.  These efforts have transformed New York City’s only freshwater river, and what was once among the most polluted waterways in America, into a vibrant, healthy part of the Bronx.

Boaters on the Bronx River. Boaters on Bronx River. Image via Bronx River Alliance.

Participants in Bronx River Alliance have witnessed the return of beaver and fish to the river and built a community actively involved in maintaining and enjoying the restored waterway.  Such efforts, says Sanderson, have returned portions of the city to Welikia, my good home.

Next, learn about the history of Lower Manhattan’s slips and check out these fun maps of the New York’s swamps.

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