Tuesday, December 6, 2011

The Nature of New York

In my "The Ides" posting I noted how good intentions can sometimes boomerang with devastating effects. One example is an 1879 New York State law that required all apartment rooms to have a window. The idea behind the law was to bring light and fresh air to the overcrowded city tenements. This good sounding law had the unintended consequence of inspiring landlords to construct the infamous "dumbbell" apartment design (see picture to right). This odious

construction only made the problem worse as the windows in the "air shafts" between the buildings filled with rotting garbage and refuse. Instead or bringing fresh air and light, this law ironically created dank apartments infused with noxious fumes. I learned about this law in David Stradling's The Nature of New York: An Environmental History of the Empire State (Cornell, 2010).

As Stradling demonstrates, New York state played a pivotal role in the history of the American environment. Just to name some of the most important events and ideas emanating from the Empire State that inspired the nation: the Erie Canal, Niagara Falls tourism, Central Park, Adirondack State Park, Levittown, and Love Canal. Important individuals such as James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School, the Roosevelts, Robert Marshall, and Robert Moses, to name a few, came from New York but impacted attitudes and policies throughout the United States. Being so focused on William Hornaday, I would argue that Stradling could have emphasized the role of the New York Zoological Park (a.k.a Bronx Zoo) in revolutionizing the concept of the zoo much more than he did, but I admit this falls in the category of basing criticism on how I might have written the book which is not always fair.

There are many more common environmental issues in New York State that could be used to make comparisons to other localities, states, and systems. Examples include, How to supply cities with water? Where to build infrastructure? Who should be held responsible for misdeeds and damage that harms other people? How to adapt to changes in the environment? What is the difference between genuine natural space and managed space? Throw in NIMBY, polluters, and larger trends like the decline of agriculture or the rise of the urban population and this book speaks across the Empire State's borders.

I really enjoyed The Nature of New York, especially because Stradling gives a lot of attention to the urban environment. He successfully argues that use of urban space is as legitimate topic for environmental history as forests, mountains, prairies, and tidal lands. New York City's pioneering 1916 zoning law stood out for me. I was surprised it took so long for such a code, and thought it more than coincidental that it was implemented only 4 years before the census revealed that the population of the country was equally divided between urban and rural dwellers. It is almost as if cities only then earned some respect as more than a dumping ground. Second, I just about forgot how much I enjoyed place histories. Whether it is a discussion on the history of the environment or politics, I do so enjoy this type of study.

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