By Doctor Comrade
Steinberg, Ted. Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 517 pages.
Steinberg’s Gotham Unbound is a hefty examination of Greater New York’s ecological history from the first European settlement in 1609 to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The book’s thesis contravenes geographical determinism by arguing that the people who built the city also constructed its destiny through their “trust in a constant population and economic growth,” resulting in the most engineered environment on the planet and its attendant ecological hazards (xviii). The book’s sixteen chapters detail ecological transformations spurred by human settlers and the resultant impacts on animal and plant life. Steinberg also asserts that environmental consequences jumpstarted human reactions in a number of ways, often in the interests of preserving New York’s economic prospects and power.
Gotham Unbound describes the 400 years of New York’s ecological history since European settlement. The book is divided into four parts, which all share the central theme that the developers of New York believed that the area would provide endless growth. The first covers early European settlement by the British and Dutch and how “unlike their Native American counterparts, the colonists were bent on changing the very geography of the island” (22). The second describes the American transformation up to 1920, including how the 1811 grid plan imposed “rational geography” onto the “natural geography” of the land, leading to problems in drainage, waste, and biodiversity by continuing to make the island bigger through filling in underwater land (52). Part three covers the first eighty years of the twentieth century and how landscapers sacrificed Greater New York’s marshlands (183). The last part covers the rise of the environmental movement and the limits of urban development (284). In each section, Steinberg documents how efforts to develop the city devastated natural habitats as waterways became choked by increasing the size of the islands as well as various kinds of refuse. Ultimately, when nature resisted development through floods, mosquitoes, or Hurricane Sandy, Steinberg concludes that “high-density living… has resulted in a high-risk landscape” (326).
Steinberg’s potent critique of capitalism is backed by thousands of expertly deployed archival documents, including a bevy of maps, which Steinberg compares over time to illustrate both urban planning and marshland devastation. Firsthand accounts from each era also demonstrate how urban development’s ethos often eschewed environmental concerns with deadly consequences. Moreover, his analyses of development plans are crucial to his argument. More importantly, Steinberg successfully illustrates how ruthless capitalist developers ruthlessly exploited New York's geographic location and natural resources for the good of the merchant class. When nature "bit back," Steinberg illustrates how elites mobilized to protect their economic interests.
Yet Steinberg rigidly sticks to “ecological history,” often grouping millions of people into the category “New Yorkers” without explaining how ecology affected them in more problematic ways. At times, it seems more like political history, focusing on politicians and urban planners, and the result is “ordinary” New Yorkers get excluded. How did ecological change affect racial minorities and women? Chapters 13 and 15 address some class aspects of reforms, but otherwise these considerations are obvious oversights in an ecological history with such an urban focus.
Despite these shortcomings, Gotham Unbound should be required reading for prospective environmental historians, especially those interested in reinterpreting urban environments in the longue durée. Importantly, Steinberg challenges geographic determinism and usefully inverts it, which yields helpful historical insights into the built environment and its consequences.