It is almost axiomatic that great cities have grown up in magnificent natural environments. Certainly this was true prior to the growth of Los Angeles which had to hijack its water supply from far away in the Rocky Mountains. Subsequently the newer cities of the American southwest and in the petro fuelled Arabian Gulf are doing their best to divorce the human from the natural environment.
Given this, it should be no great surprise that the city built at the mouth of the Hudson River (tidal for 100 km) in a bay watered as well by a number of smaller rivers and protected by Long Island while being warmed by the gulf stream was regarded as a natural wonderland when first settled by Europeans. And not only the Europeans, of course:
The following is extracted from the works of Mr. Boudinor, formerly Governor of one of the American States, and a gentleman of undoubted veracity:-” The writer of this was present at a dinner given by General Knox, to a number of Indians, in the year 1789, at New York ; they had come to the President on a mission from their nations.- The house was in Broadway.
A little before dinner, two or three of the Sachems, with their Chief, or principal man, went into the balcony at the front of the house, the drawing room being up stairs. From this they had a view of the city and harbour and Long Island ; after remaining there a short time, they returned into a room, apparently degected; but the Chief more than the rest. General Knox took notice of it, and said to him, Brother ! what has happened to you ? You look sorry; is there anything to distress you ?
He answeren-” I’ll tell you, brother; I have been looking at your beautiful city-and see how you all are. But then, I could not help thinking, that this fine country and this great water were once ours. Our ancestors lived here, they enjoyed it as their place, it was the gift of the Great Spirit to them and their children. At last the white people came here in a great canoe. They asked only to let them tie it to a tree, lest the waters should carry it away ; we consented. They then said some of their people were sick, and asked permission to land them and put them under the shade of the trees. The ice then came, and they could not go away. They then begged for a piece of land to build wigwams for the winter ; we granted it to them. They then asked for some corn to keep them from starving ; we kindly furnished it them ; they promised to go away when the ice was gone. When this happened, we told them they must go away with their big canoe; but they pointed to their big guns round their wigwams, and said they would stay there, and we could not make them go away. Afterwards more came. They brought spirituous and intoxicating liquors with them, of which the Indians became very fond. They persuaded us to sell them some land. Finally they drove us back, from time to time, into the wilderness, far from the fish and oysters-they have destroyed the game-our people have waisted away, and now we live miserable and wretched, while you are enjoying our fine and beautiful country. This makes me sorry, brother! and I cannot help it.”
The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Saturday 26 December 1818, p4
“Far from the fish and oysters” – Mark Kurlansky (@codlansky on twitter) would have a great deal of sympathy for the Indians dispossessed of their access to New York oysters. Kurlansky, the author of that wonderful history of human ecological blindness “Cod”, has more recently written of the Arcadia that was New York in “The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History”.
In Kurlansky’s telling New York, more than London or Paris, was the world capital of Oysters through to the early 20th century. Some biologists estimate that the New York harbour region may have had up to 50% of all the oysters in the world. These oysters were an important part of the overall ecological health of the region given that oysters gain their nutrients by filtering sea water.
In the 17th and 18th centuries oysters of a foot in length were harvested, too much for one man or woman at a sitting. Because oysters were abundant and easy to harvest with only basic equipment they were a standby food resource for the poor of New York, none of whom were more than a mile from the water. Street vendors, many of whom were black, sold oysters and they were available as a cheap food in many bars. Writers from abroad were treated to New York oysters and Dickens and Thackeray among others were mightily impressed with their size and quality.
That was then, of course. As the population skyrocketed from 50,000 in 1790 to 1,000,000 during the Civil War and up to 8 million and beyond in the 20th Century the problem of dealing with the waste generated by the population and the associated industry became more and more difficult to resolve. The typical solution, ultimately, was to treat the Harbour region as a dump for sewage and for industrial and agricultural waste. Eventually the water quality of the harbour deteriorated significantly and those oysters that had not been overfished by the burgeoning population eventually succumbed to the pollution around 100 years ago.
Today there are few oysters in the harbour and New York has largely turned its back on the estuary which was the foundation of its subsequent greatness. Mark Kurlansky does a fine job of describing this catastrophe and interspersing his story of New York with oyster recipes.
More recently, Forbes provides a 2012 update on Oysters re-colonising the New York region.
And the Billion Oyster Project (BOP) is a long-term, large-scale plan to restore one billion live oysters to New York Harbor over the next twenty years and in the process educate thousands of young people in New York City about the ecology and economy of their local marine environment.