The Mastodon Uptown

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, April 20, 2016

New York City has a notoriously hard time holding on to its past. But it’s not just classic architecture and cool dive bars that disappear without a trace. Fossils, too, are easily lost beneath the city streets. Still, thousands of years ago, prehistoric animals roamed the area, including the mighty mastodon (Mammut americanum), an ancient animal with an outsized presence and huge historical significance.

The first mastodon fossil ever discovered was unearthed in 1705 by a Dutch farmer in Claverack, New York, a small town about 100 miles north of Manhattan. It was a tooth, about the size of a man’s fist. Rumor has it that the farmer brought the tooth to town and promptly exchanged it for a glass of rum. The tooth then went up the political food chain, making its way to the Governor of New York and finally the King of England.

What made this mastodon fossil so significant is that it came well over a hundred years before dinosaurs were discovered. At the time, some believed the tooth belonged to one of the giants mentioned in the book of Genesis. And that’s because nobody knew what a mastodon was. The concept of fossils, extinction or even an Earth more than a few thousand years old was unfamiliar to say the least. As far as humanity was concerned, God’s chain of creation remained unbroken, and nothing He created could possibly go extinct. That was the thinking, of course, until they found this tooth in upstate New York.  

A little more about that tooth. The word mastodon is Latin for nipple tooth, and it’s these uniquely shaped teeth of theirs that distinguish them from their cousins, the woolly mammoth and the modern elephant. Mastodons were also shorter than their cousins, standing about ten feet tall. They lived in North America, typically near the coast, up until about 10,000 years ago at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch, at which point their species died off completely. This event, also known as “the fifth extinction,” saw the end of other North American megafauna, including giant ground sloths, saber tooth tigers, and Camelops, a relative of modern-day camels.

According to Carl Mehling of the American Museum of Natural History, there have been over a dozen mastodon fossils found in New York City. But, there’s a catch.

“Almost none of them exist anymore,” says Mehling. “They were found way before there was a proper repository like us. There’s just records of them being found, but no specimens.”

Warren Mastodon Skeleton - amnh.org

One of the more famous discoveries—one that eventually made its way to the museum—was found in the Inwoodneighborhood of Manhattan in 1925. Up on Seamen Avenue (where it incredibly intersects with Cumming Street), a new apartment building was under construction. As the crew hollowed out the grounds for the foundation, their shovels struck bones, specifically the lower jaw and teeth of a young mastodon.

Later that day, Dr. CC Mook from the Museum of Natural History was dispatched uptown to collect the bones. Only, before he could arrive on the scene, Inwood locals made off with the majority of the specimen. One story, reported inThe Sun on March 25, 1925, recounts a construction worker showing the fossils to a local milkman only to have the milkman run away with the bones.  By the time Dr. Mook arrived on the scene, only three teeth were left. The story goes on to say that two of those remaining three teeth were promptly picked out of Dr. Mook’s pocket as he made his way from the construction site to his car.

By now, most if not all of those bones have been returned to the museum. Joining the Inwood specimen are other New York City mastodon fossils, including a piece of a tusk found during the digging of the Harlem River Canal.

Despite this relatively small amount of fossilized evidence, Mehling is quick to point out that many mastodons lived and died in New York City. The only problem is that finding a mastodon fossil—or any fossil for that matter—in New York City is, as Mehling puts it: “insanely hard.”

A restoration of the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), Art by Dantheman9758, image from Wikipedia.

That’s because typically fossils are found in sedimentary rock, a mix of sand and mud or dirt. New York City’s foundation, on the hand, is mostly metamorphic rock, and therefore produces too much heat and pressure for anything to leave an imprint or a record.

“We have every indication that mastodons were all over the northeast. The fossils in New York aren’t some rogues who made it here. These animals were New Yorkers,” says Mehling. “There’s a damn good chance there were mammoths here and giant ground sloths and native horses, too,”

New York City, however, is simply not well equipped to preserve its past. What makes the Inwood mastodon so unique is that it died in the right place, where thousands of years later, New York City was given a rare glimpse into its ancient history.  Carl Mehling chalks it up to “luck” that any fossils should exist here at all. Because, geologically speaking, New York City really is designed to carry on as though the past never existed.

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Aw Shucks, The Tragic History of New York City Oysters

 

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, February 9, 2016

Oysters are one of New York Harbor’s best shots at clean water, as well as one of its best chances at protection from future storm surges. These are the same oysters New Yorkers have done their best to decimate with centuries of pollution and overconsumption. The oysters hold no grudges, however, and have returned to help restore the harbor, even if New York probably doesn’t deserve it.

When Henry Hudson sailed into New York City in 1609, he happened upon one of the world’s most impressive natural harbors. There Hudson saw whales, otters, turtles, and countless fish. What he could not have seen, however, were the 220,000 acres of oyster beds below the surface on the harbor floor, constituting nearly half of the oysters in the entire world.

The ensuing wave of European visitors to Manhattan were introduced to eating oysters by the local Lenape, who would open the shells by wrapping the entire oyster in seaweed before tossing them on a fire. The Dutch, like the English and others who subsequently made their way to New York, loved the tasty bivalves. Oysters quickly became synonymous with New York City, as Mark Kurlansky’s book, The Big Oyster, skillfully outlines. Long before hot dog carts could be found everywhere, Oysters were the ubiquitous food items of New York City; the original street meat.

It seemed everywhere an enterprising fishermen looked, they found abundant oyster beds, from outer Long Island to Raritan Bay to Norwalk, CT. In fact, oysters routinely grew to the size of dinner plates in the present-day Gowanus Canal. (And that’s a sentence that gets more disgusting the longer you read it.)

Everyone in New York ate oysters. The rich saw them as a delicacy, and the poor enjoyed how cheap they were, not to mention easy to collect.  Oyster taverns popped all over the city to feed the seemingly insatiable appetite. But, of course, this pace could not endure, and soon the oyster populations faced a multi-pronged threat to their existence.

Firstly, they were over harvested. Too many people were eating too many oysters (New Yorkers aren’t exactly known for their restraint.) Things began to look bad in 1820, when the oyster beds around Staten Island became depleted. Undeterred by this harbinger of things to come, New York continued to harvest oysters at an even greater pace. By the early 1900s, over 1 billion a year were being pulled out of the area’s waterways.

Another major threat to the oyster beds were the city’s ever expanding shoreline. Between 1609 and 2010, Manhattan grew by roughly 20%. What was once a shoreline of marshy, rocky shallows – ideal for oyster beds – had been replaced with a nearly unbroken string of bulkheads, piers and landfill. It was good for trade and commerce, but bad for marine biodiversity.

Photo Courtesy of The Daily Mail

Lastly, waste management, or the lack thereof, contributed to the oyster’s demise. Until shockingly recently (circa 1970s), New York was dumping millions of gallons of raw, untreated sewage into the harbor on a daily basis. Not surprisingly, the oyster beds could not survive. In 1921, the New York City Health Department closed the Jamaica Bay oyster beds, then responsible for 80 million oysters a year, due to fears of food borne illness, including typhoid. From there the end came fast, and six years later, in 1927, the last New York City oyster bed was closed in Raritan Bay.

With the passage of the Clean Water Act fifty years later in 1972, the harbor was given minor respite, but it was too little, too late. New York City oysters would survive as a species, but they would not be fit to eat again any time soon.

And just like that, New York City had squandered one of its greatest natural resources, by imposing upon their habitat, over-harvesting their population, and literally dumping crap on all that remained.

It’s said that oysters are a perfect real-time reflection of their surroundings.  So it follows that if the people living near oyster beds are thoughtless and dirty – if they are reckless and poisonous to their environment – then it will show in the oysters.

Oysters were some of the first victims of gentrification in New York City (the first of course being, tragically, the Lenape people).

Today, New York would do well to make amends with the oyster, given all the oyster can do for New York.

For one, oysters clean the waters in which they live. They are tiny beasts of burden in this way, designed to withstand troubled water and capable of filtering up to 50 gallons of it per oyster, per day.

Photo Courtesy of NJ:NY Baykeeper

Oysters also act as keystone species, attracting other marine life to live around them, from microscopic organisms to crabs and fish.

Of course, there is also the legend of their aphrodisiac powers. According to a 2005 New York Times article, oysters are high in zinc, and a zinc deficiency has been shown to lead to sexual impotence. So, sure, maybe there’s a link. Though, scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as an aphrodisiac, so probably not.

Still, there is something vaguely romantic about eating oysters. They are an occasion, and eating them requires a certain amount of ceremony. Furthermore, few things could elicit one’s mortality – and one’s joy for being alive – more than eating a living thing: the raw oyster. From the the violent cracking open of their shell to the risk of foodborne illness, eating oysters, like love, can be messy, expensive and potentially harmful to one’s well being. So, even if eating these tasty bivalves doesn’t lead to romance, it certainly can resemble it.

In New York, specifically, oysters were once unsung local heroes. And they promise to play a role in its success once more. Figuratively, New York City was made with oysters insofar as they provided a cheap and abundant food source and generations of gainful employment. But even literally, a fair amount of New York City is made with oysters, most notably the lime used in Trinity Church is comprised of ground up oyster shells. Nearby, Pearl Street is named for the piles of oysters left there by the Lenape.

In Tottenville, Staten Island, a different kind of oyster structure is being considered. SCAPE/Landscape Architecture has introduced Living Breakwater, a series of oyster walls reinforced with concrete to be built just past Staten Island’s southern shore, an area particularly beat up during Hurricane Sandy. This 13,000-foot reef would attract marine life, clean the surrounding water, and, most importantly, protect against future storm surges.

Gina Wirth of SCAPE/Landscape Architecture told DNAinfo in a 2014 interview that the oyster walls would “reduce water velocity, reduce erosion of the shoreline and reduce the height and intensity of waves.” Tottenville, once known as “the town oysters built”, is now wagering that its towns best shot at survival is to build oysters.

And, Tottenville is just one area where oysters are staging a comeback around New York City. Leading this revival is Billion Oyster Project, a small project with big ambitions. As the name suggests, Billion Oyster Project hopes to restore one billion oysters to New York Harbor. They began in 2012, and so far have returned around 12 million oysters to the harbor, primarily around Governor’s Island and at the mouth of the Bronx River.

BOP - photo courtesy of Billion Oyster Project.jpg

Affiliated with the New York Harbor School, Billion Oyster Project educates New York City teenagers on maritime vocations and ecology by way of oyster restoration. To do this, Billion Oyster Project collects oyster shells from restaurants around New York City, such as Grand Central Oyster Bar and Gramercy Tavern, to help seed the new oyster beds. Oyster spats, aka baby oysters, float around oyster beds until they find a good surface to call home, and an old oyster shell from a fancy New York restaurant will do just fine. The students tend to the spat and recycled shells at floating cages that serve as breeding grounds for the oysters before they are returned to the harbor.

[Fun fact: oysters reproduce by releasing sperm into the water. Female oysters – who are just older male oysters; their gender is very fluid – release eggs to finish the job of making spat.]

Sam Janis of Billion Oyster Project says they are going to need trillions of oysters to get the job done, not just a billion. “In some ways, New York Harbor is unrestorable,” says Janis. “I mean, not restorable by our own hand. Nature has its own course. But I don’t think it’s fair to say the oyster is going to save the harbor.

“However, compared to fifty years ago there is a lot of life in the harbor. Many magnitudes more biodiversity and bioproductivity,” says Janis. “No longer dumping millions of gallons of raw sewage into the harbor every day can do that.”

Even though it remains a long shot, the oysters are down there below the surface working tirelessly for the benefit of New York Harbor. They are greatly outnumbered, sure, yet still determined to leave the water a lot cleaner than they found it, and certainly a lot cleaner than we left it.

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The Monk Parrots of Green-Wood Cemetery

 

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, December3, 2015

parrot1

The most unlikely attraction at Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery is the group of loud, colorful, possibly illegal immigrants: the monk parrots of Argentina.

Situated at Brooklyn’s highest point, Green-Wood Cemetery is ideal for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. With nearly 500 acres of fruit trees, elms and ponds, the cemetery offers a green respite from the surrounding urban area. Plus, given the state of its residents, the grounds are usually pretty quiet. Birders at Green-Wood can expect to see herons, egrets, hawks, and killdeer, among dozens of other birds. The most surprising bird inhabiting the cemetery, though, is the monk parrot.

Monk parrots (myiopsitta monachus) appear as a shock of lime green against the cemetery’s lush landscape. About eleven inches long and a bit stocky in stature, their green is complemented by grey “hoods” of coloring over their forehead, cheeks, throat and breasts, hence the monk designation. Their wings are dark blue, and the tails have a hint of pink. Their song has been described as “raucous and harsh.” Their personalities are gregarious.

Like most other New Yorkers, the monk parrots are not originally from New York City. Like most other New Yorkers, they are immigrants. Monk parrots are native to Bolivia, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay. The parrots in Green-Wood Cemetery come from Argentina, or so says Steve Baldwin, of Brooklyn Parrots.

 

parrot2

Steve Baldwin is the self-appointed expert on the monk parrots of Green-Wood Cemetery. Baldwin is in his late 50s. He is tall and thin with white hair and glasses. He is also gregarious, with energetic and welcoming body language. Baldwin is not an ornithologist, however. He’s more of an enthusiast. He runs parrot ‘safaris’ at Green-Wood, and says the story of how these chatty birds found their way to Brooklyn goes back about 50 years.

In the 1950s, according to Baldwin, Argentina was looking to expand agricultural output in an attempt to modernize their economy. The country wanted to grow more food, specifically in places they had never grown food before. To the monk parrots of Argentina, this was initially a welcome development. Suddenly there was a lot more food, specifically in places there had not been any food before.

To the Argentine government, however, these birds were a nuisance, or more appropriately, a pestilence. The economy would never grow if the food wouldn’t first grow. And the food would never grow so long as the parrots were around.

parrot3

So the Argentine government decided to invest in bounty hunters: citizens, farmers, anyone with a gun. This crowd-sourced solution promised a small sum to anyone who killed a monk parrot and sent in the bird’s feet for verification. Despite the nearly half a million pairs of bird feet sent in for payment, this strategy proved ultimately unsuccessful. For one, the breadth of the parrot populations was larger than originally assumed. Secondly, the program was rife with fraud, with many ‘non-parrot’ feet being sent in for payment.

So Argentina went to Plan B: selling the birds. In the late 1960s the market for exotic birds in the United States was taking off as more and more people came to enjoy the parrots’ intelligence and sociability. Sensing an opportunity, some 60,000 of Argentina’s monk parrots were rounded up and sent to American pet shops. In 1968 alone, nearly 12,000 monk parrots were brought to the United States.

parrot4.jpg

Exactly how the birds got from being on their way to pet shops to living in the wild in Green-Wood Cemetery, however, is a bit fuzzy.

The most popular version of the story says, an unmarked crate arrived at New York’s JFK Airport in 1967. A curious airport employee opened the mysterious crate to see what was inside. Suddenly, and with quite a flutter, the colorful birds escaped. A similar version states the “curious employee” was actually an individual with mafia ties looking to pilfer whatever was inside the crate.

Another theory says the “wild” birds are actually released pets. This story asserts that pet owners in New York City experienced buyer’s remorse with the chatty birds and simply released them out their windows. Still another version says they all flew away from a shuttered pet shop on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn.

Even if it’s not exactly clear how it happened, by the late 1960s the parrots had made their way to New York City. According to a report by New York City naturalist John Bull, nearly a dozen species of escaped parrots had been observed around New York City area in the early 1970s. The monk parrots, however, seem to be the only species hardy enough – or maybe just lucky – to survive the unforgiving New York City winters.

Unfortunately, like so many New Yorkers, the birds ran into problems with the neighbors. Concerned residents alerted the authorities. In turn, the authorities contacted the Argentine government to see what to do. Not surprisingly, Argentina strongly suggested killing all the birds.

So in 1973, a team of bird hunters hired by the U.S. government set out to shoot and kill all the parrots. The group was an interagency task force of state and federal agencies with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation in the lead. The Department of Agriculture was also involved. (It’s unclear who brought the firearms.) Quickly, about half of the pandemonium was killed, before the remaining parrots were found hiding on Rikers Island. According to Baldwin, the exterminators arrived at Rikers to finish the job, but were not allowed on the grounds due to a lack of permits. The next day, with their paperwork in order, the team returned only to find the birds gone.

From there the birds flew south to Brooklyn, to Green-Wood Cemetery, where they would make their new home. With no agriculture nearby to plague, and few living neighbors to complain, the parrots had found asylum at Green-Wood.

parrot5

Years later, Steve Baldwin has found a sort of calling, leading his own flock of eager birders hoping to spot the colorful monk parrots. The safaris are not a full-time job for Steve. In fact, the tours are free. During the week, he works in marketing. However, on the first Saturday of every month, groups convene outside the cemetery gates in Brooklyn’s South Slope neighborhood, waiting for Steve to show them the parrots. The next event is onDecember 12th at Brooklyn College.

“It’s certainly not the most important issue in the world,” Baldwin concedes. “But it’s a nice feeling to know these animals are out there. Life is right here in New York City, too. There’s still magic here.”

Officially speaking, Green-Wood Cemetery has no official position on Steve or his safaris. According to Chelsea Dowell, Manager of Programs and Membership, Green-Wood is “thrilled” whenever people come to view the birds. “Green-Wood has always been a place where people enjoy nature,” says Dowell. “These birds are just one more facet of that.” And if in fact Steve is sneaking around with his unofficial safaris, it would be seen by Green-Wood as completely “sanctioned sneaking.”

On the safaris, the main attraction is the grand Gothic Revival archway lording over the cemetery’s entrance near 25th Street and 5th Avenue, where about 100 Monk Parrots have made their home. Richard Upjohn, who also designed Trinity Church on Wall Street in Lower Manhattan, designed the brownstone structure in 1863. The archway boasts countless eaves, nooks and crannies. In addition to thrilling architectural enthusiasts, they are also ideal for parrot nests.

Parrots are communal breeders. That means pairs of nesting parrots make their homes in larger groups. These nest complexes are akin to an apartment building, with up to a dozen parrot couples breeding and roosting within their individual chambers. Each ‘apartment’ has its own entranceway, though there is no common area.

In this small way, the monk parrots further mimic the immigrant experience of New York City: living in close quarters with their own kind, often at elevation, thousands of miles from home.

Hawks and crows pose a distinct threat to the parrots, but so, some might say, does the utility provider of New York City, ConEdison.

parrot6

Nearby, where Gothic Revival archways can’t be found, the Monk Parrots have become quite fond of nesting on electrical transformers. The birds are drawn to the height and stability, not to mention the warmth. However, this has led to countless short-circuits, some localized blackouts and even fires. Con Edison has frequently had to disrupt these nests.

“I have trouble describing myself as an ‘animal rights’ person,” says Baldwin with regard to the transformer nests. “I see the point of view of the utilities company.”

But, at Green-Wood Cemetery, the birds can flourish, with only the occasional hawk or crow to discourage their efforts. Furthermore, the birds are bringing living people back to the cemetery. Cemeteries, by design, have a pretty solid business model, and enjoy a reliable customer stream. However, Green-Wood has run into some practical constraints. Namely, they’re running out of space for plots. The monk parrots, and the birders who come to appreciate them, represent a new model of attracting visitors to Green-Wood.

And so, in a cemetery of all places, the monk parrots are given a chance to live.

To Baldwin, this is quintessentially American. “They came in the same way most immigrants come in, right through the airport,” he says. “And what is the American Dream?  I’d say it’s to be left alone. And that’s all these birds want, man. They just want to be left alone to do their thing. And if you take your knocks, you can keep your piece of the rock. Or at least part of Brooklyn… They’d never be able to get into Manhattan.”

 

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An Inaccurate History of Turkey Trots

In 1493, Christopher Columbus searched for a way to commemorate his first year in the New World. When one crisp November morning he awoke in Hispaniola, proclaiming, “I’ve got a great idea! We shall have an annual Autumnal athletic event!”

“Hey, I hate to interrupt,” cautioned a local Arawak chieftain. “But, this sort of thing has already been happening in the area for a while. I mean, you can’t just say it was your idea when it has existed here for at least a decade.”

“No, it’s my idea! I just came up with it!” Columbus insisted. “Also, I just discovered lacrosse, too!”

“‘Discovered?'” The Arawak chieftain asked. “Don’t you think you’re maybe wearing that word out a little bit, Chris?”

Columbus climbed down off his high chair, put his arm around the Arawak chieftain’s shoulder, and said, “Hey, man. Can I talk to you over here for a second?”

****

In the year 1621, the great Pokanoket sachem Massasoit traveled with ninety of his men to the Plymouth Colony for the first Thanksgiving feast. Recently discovered documents indicate that before they ate, Massasoit stood before the hushed crowd and proclaimed, “This food looks rad, you guys, and I’m really, really stoked to eat upon it. But before we do, shouldn’t we first run like 2 miles around the neighborhood or something?”

“Bro!” called out Myles Standish of the Plymouth Colony. “Can we run in costumes?”

“Um, yeah, sure,” replied Massasoit. “As long as you guys promise not to eventually steal our land and use our likeness for sporting mascots.”

“Deal!” They cried out in unison before lacing up their Asics.

***

In the year 1775, Israel Putnam led his band of Revolutionary soldiers north along the Connecticut coastline, all the while being pursued by King George’s Hessian army from the south. It would be a long winter and spirits were low. Old Put said to his men, “Let us stop here for the night. And in the morning, we will run around this peninsula dressed as heathens.”

“Will there be considerations for best entrance?” one of the men cried out.

“Sure,” said Putnam. “But, you know, please don’t show up like 30 seconds before the race starts. By the way, what are you guys going as?”

“Oh, we can’t tell you,” the soldier cried back. “You’re the organizer. You can’t know.”

****

In 1863, struggling to keep a fractured nation together, Abraham Lincoln declared a day of national Thanksgiving.

“Wouldn’t it really be something,” Abe pondered to his Secretary of State, Seward, “if we could make a big show of reunion.”

“That would have to be something big,” replied Seward.

“I’m saying,” said Lincoln. “Maybe like a sporting event.”

“What do you have in mind?” asked Seward.

“Shit, I don’t know, bro,” Lincoln pondered. “Does football exist yet?”

“I’m afraid not yet, Mr. President,” said Seward.

****

In 1958, during the height of the cold war, President Eisenhower sought to encourage cardiovascular activity in the electorate, while at the same time keeping fear at an absolute high.

“If only they could exercise inside their bomb shelters,” thought the 34th President.

But the costs of providing every fallout shelter in the country with treadmills were prohibitively expensive. And so in a showing of great compassion for his repressed citizenry, Ike said, “Why doesn’t everyone go for a run before the Lions game or something?

“But, you know, get back to ducking and covering just as soon as you’re done,” he concluded.

****

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The History of The High Line

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, April 1, 2015

The High Line Park attracts nearly 6,000,000 visitors a year. Though thoroughly modern at every step, The High Line Park owes its success – and its very existence – to the past. In fact, the elevated train tracks that make up the current day park were originally constructed not only to deliver food to Manhattan, but also to save lives.

Prior to the construction of the elevated tracks, trains ran at street level, giving this stretch of Tenth Avenue the dubious nickname of Death Avenue. This corridor earned the moniker due to the consistent – and almost always gruesome – incidence of trains colliding with people along the busy thoroughfare, often resulting in fatalities. Before the trains were eventually elevated, the New York Central Railroad hired men on horseback armed with red flags to ride in front of the trains to signal its arrival. These men came to be known as The West Side Cowboys.

West Side Cowboys - High LineBy 1934, Manhattan’s West Side Elevated Line was constructed as part of a massive urban redevelopment project, spearheaded in part by Robert Moses. This was not the only elevated train line in Manhattan at the time. Its novelty, however, came by way of its path, bisecting city blocks, rather than running directly over traffic. Trains running on the High Line unloaded their cargo directly into buildings on Manhattan’s West Side, such as the warehouses for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), the present-day Chelsea Market. The original High Line tracks ran as far south as Spring Street, almost twice its current length. Though by 1961, most of this southern section had been demolished.

As trucking became a more common form of freight transportation, the High Line saw a steady decline in use. Around this same time, industry decentralized from urban centers, further contributing to the decline in the High Line’s rail use as Manhattan’s West Side became the Meatpacking District in name only. Finally, in late 1980, the last train ran on the High Line carrying three carloads of frozen turkeys just in time for Thanksgiving.

High Line - Nabisco

As the 1980s made way for the 1990s, most residents of Manhattan’s West Side saw the High Line for what it unfortunately had become: a rusty relic, a bygone blight getting in the way of a neighborhood’s redevelopment. In certain places, the High Line literally got in the way of property owners desire for upward growth. And in late 2001, the tracks very nearly met their demise when Mayor Rudy Giuliani signed an order for their demolition just days before leaving office.

Meanwhile, up on the tracks, something unexpected was happening: nature was taking back the abandoned stretch of rail line. Seeds began depositing on the High Line by way of winds and passing birds. In a short time, wild flowers and other unintended growth began to take form.  The tracks appeared rusted and muted to pedestrians and neighbors. But, along the mile-and-a-half stretch, nature was taking back that which the City had abandoned.

Photo by Josh Sternfeld

Photo by Josh Sternfeld

This transformation was by no means a secret. Down at the street level, Joshua David and Robert Hammond founded Friends of the High Line, a nonprofit dedicated to repurposing the train tracks for public use. Around the same time, CSX Transportation, then owners of the tracks, commissioned photographer Joel Sternfeld to document the serene transformation afoot on the abandoned tracks. As these images circulated, public favor for the public space plan grew. Diane von Furstenberg being the nascent park’s most well known early advocate.

Luckily, Giuliani’s demolition orders never took hold, and in 2004, then Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $50 million to the park’s redevelopment. By 2009, the first phase opened with the second and third phases following in 2011 and 2014 respectively. Hoping to emulate the High Line’s success, similar projects have popped up in Philadelphia, Chicago, Manhattan’s Lower East Side and Queens, to name a few. While the High Line, once an artery of industry and nearly demolished in haste, stands as one of New York’s most unique attractions; one that upholds the legacy of New York’s history while at the same blazing the trail for future open space initiatives.

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Uncovering NYC’s Sewer Alligator Legend

Originally appeared on Untapped Cities, March 10, 2015

The NYC Department of Environmental Protection oversees the city’s massive sewer system, employing about 6,000 people. This small army is in charge of the nearly 7,400 miles of sewer pipe that flush a staggering 1.3 billion gallons of water every day. The department is quite friendly and responsive, as far as city services go. Recently, we wrote them to see if we could speak to someone on record. Quickly, a real person responded inviting me to ask away.

So we did. We only had one question.

“Are there now or have there ever been alligators in the New York City sewer system?”

The response came back the next day.

“We have no record of alligators in the NYC sewer system.”

But as definitive as this answer was, the rumor still persists. For example, when searching “NYC sewers” on Google, the term “alligator” auto-populates alongside it.

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Alligators may or may not exist in the city’s sewers, but the legend of them remains a part of the New York City mythology. And this likely started in the early 20th century, when, according to legend, it is said that wealthy New York City families went vacationing in warmer, exotic climates and returned with baby alligators as souvenirs; a little something for the kids. The legend goes on to say that after a while the beasts got too big and were flushed down the toilet.  Ever since, they have roamed the murky waters of the city sewers, reproducing and subsisting on a diet of plentiful rats.

These origin theories didn’t come out of nowhere, though. They began circulating around the same time actual alligators began popping up around New York City. For instance, in June of 1932, two boys brought a dead 3-foot alligator to the Bronx River Parkway Police with confirmation of at least three more alligators alive and well back at the same spot along the river. The next day a hunting expedition set out, but ultimately found nothing. Still the newspapers reported the next day on “swarms” of the beasts swimming in the Bronx River.

On February 10, 1935, The New York Times reported on a 7-foot, 125 pound alligator turning up in the sewers near 123rd Street in Harlem. According to reports, some neighborhood boys were shoveling snow into a manhole when suddenly they saw a thrashing which they soon realized was an alligator, albeit a diseased one. The boys attached a slip knot around the massive creature and together pulled the animal from the sewer and onto the street. Unfortunately, no pictures were taken of the beast as the city quickly had the reptile incinerated.

Twenty years later the tale popped up again in Robert Daley’s nonfiction book, The World Beneath the City (1959). In the book, Daley recalls a story told to him by New York City’s superintendent of sewers, Teddy May, a man with his own legendary personality. For years, May had heard rumors of alligator congregations from his employees, but figured it was a whiskey-inspired legend. One night he decided to look for himself. Down below the streets he saw:

“Alligators serenely paddling. The beam of his own flashlight had spotted alligators whose length, on the average, was about two feet. Some may have been longer… The colony appeared to have settled contentedly under the very streets of the busiest city in the world.”

The story goes on to describe alligator hunts with an arsenal of “rat poison” and “.22 rifles” among other weaponry.  Perhaps these “sewer safaris” eradicated the scourge of sewer gators then. But, there’s also the possibility that it was all made up. Teddy May was not the most reliable of sources and was evidently known to spin yarns.

Sewer alligators have made more than a few appearances in pop culture, too. A few years after Daley’s book, Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. (1962) added more voices to the conversation. In the novel, Benny Profane works for New York City’s Alligator Patrol, where two-man teams search underground for alligators, one with a flashlight, the other with a shotgun.

Allusions to sewer alligators can be seen by commuters who frequent the 14th Street station on the 8th Avenue line in the form of Tom Otterness’s art installation, “Life Underground.” The series of sculptures depicts a variety of scenes including an alligator reaching out from underneath a manhole cover to snatch a man for dinner.

Life_Underground_Alligator (1)

And as recently as August 23, 2010, witnesses in Queens reported seeing an 18-inch alligator. “It’s a big mystery,” said police spokesman Officer James Duffy, who was on the scene that day. “It could have been dumped from a car or it could have come out of a sewer.” Turns out it had fallen from a ship and dragged itself from the East River to this spot of gawking residents.

In spite of all these stories, sewer alligators remain a myth or a legend, at least officially. Academically speaking, they exist in the realm of something called cryptozoology, the study of animals whose existence has not yet been proven. The Loch Ness Monster, Skunk Ape and Sasquatch also fall under cryptozoology. Cryptozoology has its detractors. Critics contend it’s more of a pseudo-science that relies too much on anecdotal evidence and not enough on the scientific method. Proponents are quick to point out that both the okapi and the Komodo dragon, two very real animals, were once under the purview of cryptozoology, and thought to be imaginary by so-called serious scientists.

Loren Coleman runs the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine. He has written a few books on the subject and even appeared on The History Channel to discuss sewer alligators. According to his email, “Alligators in the sewers are neither rumor, folktale or myth, but a real part of the underground world of some of our larger urban centers.“

Though adamant, his email didn’t provided any specific examples or evidence. But, perhaps simply looking at alligators might provide some credence to the theory that they could survive in the sewers.  Research shows that alligators (and also crocodiles) can detect minuscule vibrations in the water through dome pressure receptors on their faces. That is to say, they don’t rely solely on sight for hunting and therefore wouldn’t be totally “in the dark” hunting in the light-deprived sewer system. This is further backed up by the fact that alligators very often hunt at night.

And while it is true that alligators probably prefer something warmer than New York City, the sewers themselves can be quite warm. Most importantly, alligators survived the last Ice Age, which was probably a bit colder than any northeast winter–even this winter. In fact, it is probably foolish to question the adaptability of a creature that has existed for over 30 million years.

Jim Nesci is an alligator expert and reptile educator from the Chicago area. He was a “good friend” of the late Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin, and has adopted several rescue reptiles. Nesci points out that any number of alligators could end up in a sewer system. (One of his very own rescue gators was found in a sewage treatment plant in Illinois). However, as he points out, alligators can’t digest food in temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, making the prospect of surviving a New York City winter, even underground, unlikely. Furthermore, the nests required for laying eggs rely on vegetation more than likely not found in an urban sewer system. As Nesci puts it, “in the short term and only the short term” alligators could survive in a sewer system. But they couldn’t reproduce or thrive there.

In the end, alligator populations probably wouldn’t fare too well in New York City sewers. But, the legend of alligators in the sewer seems to serve some other purposes. For one, New York views itself as a tough place. The idea that even the sewers were teeming with predators bolsters this mystique. New York City is also expansive. Part of the city’s charm is the idea that there is always something new to see. There’s something new to discover on every single street. It only makes sense to think there might be something mysterious underneath those streets, too.

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I Was Just Kidding: How a Snarky Tweet Got Me 9 New Followers!

Like you and everyone else you know, I was captivated by ‘The Dress’ for way longer than I should have been. I debated friends, took screenshots, used a control image, altered room lighting, and really just wasted a bunch of time arguing over an internet meme; an argument that literally can’t be won.

Similar experiences happened to a lot of people. Sure, it’s an interesting discussion on relative experience and perception or whatever. But, it’s also just a picture of a dress manipulated by photoshop. (Also: It’s kind of funny how we all saw different colors, but yet had the same arguments.)

So after literally 36 hours of thinking about the stupid dress, I took to twitter to be snarky…. because, you know, one useless internet activity certainly deserves another, right?

Dress

Here’s what I tweeted: What The Dress can teach us about, um, net neutrality, or no, content marketing.

Good jokes usually don’t need to be explained, but here goes. There’s a trend to tie something recent in the news to one’s industry. What x can teach us about y, with xbeing the thing in the news and y being the thing you do for a living. So the ‘joke’ in the above tweet is that the author is searching for some buzzword to affiliate with the dress. It’s about taking advantage of a trend even when it doesn’t make sense.

But, it turns out I used a good buzzword: content marketing. For the record, I believe in content marketing. What I don’t believe in is mining twitter for like-minded search terms free of context. The tweet garnered five favorites from accounts that had either “#content” or “#contentmarketing” in their bio. And my awesome twitter handlealso received nine new followers from folks who have “marketing” somewhere in their bio.

Are these folks in on the joke or are they following who the algorithm robots tell them to follow? Either way, I’m glad to have them here. These new followers are going to love my content!

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