Eric Sanderson, Wildlife Conservation Society
New York, USA

Sanderson, E.W. (2009) Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City.

Ever wonder how your city got to be the way it is? What was it like 10,000 years ago? What did the landscape look like? Where and how did people live? What were the best spots to set up a community? These are fascinating questions, ones Eric Sanderson asked when he first moved to New York City. What was Manhattan like before Europeans arrived? In his book Mannahatta, he explores the most detailed record of early Manhattan available, The British Headquarters Map. From this document, he was able to reconstruct a highly detailed map of the island showing waterways, elevations, and even the likelihood you would find particular plants or animals in an area. It can be a lot of fun to explore a particular landmark, say City Hall, and imagine what would have been there oh-so-long ago.

The British Headquarters Map, circa 1782. The National Archives of the UK, ref. MR1/463.

Yet Mannahatta explores much more. In his book, Sanderson asks how humans have shaped our ecology, not just how it shaped us. This is clearly spelled out in the story of the Collect Pond, a deep glacial pond that served as the primary water source for indigenous communities. With the arrival of Europeans, the Collect Pond underwent an immediate transformation, with a series of consequences for Manhattan, and beyond.

We’re fascinated by this text and worked with the author and publisher to make this selection available for you to use in class. The intersection of the natural sciences and history as expressed here in Mannahatta are very much what the Big History Project is all about

— BHP Team

The Old Collect

The result of this work is a consensus guess at the map of ecological neighborhoods on Mannahatta in 1609. As is true of Manhattan’s human neighborhoods, the layout of Mannahatta’s ecological neighborhoods had no singular logical cause; it arose as an emergent property of the entire landscape, as much by accident as design. Some neighborhoods are expansive, like an oak-tulip tree forest; others are narrowly restricted to specific locales, like maritime tidal dunes. But in all cases, there is no one reason why a community is where it is or how it is composed. Ecology teaches us to think of the many different reasons why something happens, and to understand these reasons in context with the history and geography of a place.

City neighborhoods form and change similarly, despite the best-laid plans of city planners—as an example, consider the fate of the Collect Pond in lower Manhattan. In the early days of the nineteenth century, city leaders allowed a tannery to set up shop on the edge of the Collect. Tanneries preserve the skins of animals by soaking their hides in plant chemicals (tannins – the same compounds that give a young red wine its bite) extracted from local trees, especially hemlock and oak, which, when disposed of as waste in the convenient nearby pond, rapidly poisoned the water, spoiling what had been the city’s best and most accessible drinking water. Remember that New York City was built on an island in a tidal (i.e., salty) estuary, with no possibility of drinking from the Hudson and East rivers. The spoilage of the Collect led to plans to bring in water from uptown, orders to dig wells to extract the groundwater downtown, and eventually construction of the Croton water system, which would bring water from Westchester, thirty miles away. (It also led to a bank – Aaron Burr formed the “Manhattan Water Company” in 1808 to bring water from streams uptown, but then used the assets to form a bank, later known as the Chase Manhattan Bank, and now a part of JPMorgan Chase.) In the meantime, city leaders voted to fill in the verdant Collect, by leveling the adjacent hills into the stagnant waters and declining marshes.

Map of the Collect Pond, 1887. New York Public Library Digital Collections.

The city advanced rapidly over the site with the construction of tenements, churches, and businesses around the short-lived and quickly forgotten “Paradise Square.” Within a decade the land began to subside, having been incompletely filled; the formerly luxuriant vegetation of the shrub-swamp and coastal-plain-pond shore, now trapped in the soil, began to decompose and release unpleasant vapors. In other words, the landscape, disturbed by the pond being filled, began to adjust, by stinking and collapsing. Those people who could left for more salubrious uptown addresses, while those who couldn’t, mainly immigrant Irish and freed blacks, stayed on in increasingly dangerous and crowded tenements that sank slowly into the mire. The neighborhood became known as Five Points, for the five streets that once met over the northern edge of the Collect Pond; some of its particular charms are recalled in Martin Scorsese’s movie Gangs of New York (2002). Charles Dickens visited, and in his American Notes (1842) deplored the slum neighborhood, with its unpaved alleys filled with knee-deep mud, free-roaming pigs, rotting and sinking houses, and children sleeping on the steps. Gangs established their own competitive balance; the Plug Uglies, Dead Rabbits, and Roach Guards marked out territory as the woodcock and osprey had once done. It wasn’t until Jacob Riis, the journal and reformer, began documenting the conditions in the 1880s with a new invention, the camera, that things began to change. The city bought up and condemned most of the tenements and replaced them with large civic buildings, including the reconstructed Tombs, the city prison, and the New York Courthouse. Now, when accused criminals are arraigned in the gray stone buildings of Foley Square, they face the judge on the shores of the old Collect Pond.

Five Points intersection painted by George Catlin in 1827. Bandits’ Roost, Mullen’s Alley, New York, Mulberry Bend, all by Jacob Riss. All public domain. Foley Square, by AlexiusHoratius, CC BY-SA 4.0.

This anecdote is just one of the hundreds of forgotten stories of how New York came to be and how Mannahatta, in subtle ways, continues to shape the city. If New York City is a mosaic, then the tiles of the mosaic are its neighborhoods. At one time those tiles were blue and green and represented ecological communities, neighborhood habitats for thousands of species. Now the mosaic is made of diverse human neighborhoods, and the mortar that binds the tiles is the social and cultural ties, the economic relationships and personal friendships of a thriving city. In the next chapter we turn to the ties that bound Mannahatta’s diverse populations together, and come to understand that by simply defining different ideas of home, we can see how nature, and cities, are strengthened and renewed even as they change through time.

Sanderson, Eric W., and Markley Boyer. “The Old Collect.” Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York City, Abrams, 2013, pp. 167 – 169.

About the author: Dr. Eric W. Sanderson is a Senior Conservation Ecologist at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and teaches part-time at NYU and Columbia University. He holds a PhD in ecosystem and landscape ecology (1998) from the University of California, Davis, and is the author of the bestselling Mannahatta:  A Natural History of New York City (Abrams, 2009). Sanderson and his team have been expanding the work on the historical ecology to all five boroughs of New York through the Welikia Project ( He lives on City Island, in the Bronx, with his wife, son, some chickens, and a rambunctious puppy, and works at the Bronx Zoo. 

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