Imagining a Wild City
Sitting on a cold, mossy jetty, I watch the bottomless, blue Atlantic spill over the distant curve of the horizon. A few brave Herring Gulls swoop through the wind gusts overhead searching for small, beached crustaceans. I can also tell they’re curious if I’d bought a hotdog from Nathan’s before assuming my wintery perch. Turning my gaze to the idle boardwalk, Coney Island’s famous “Wonder Wheel” frames a distant metropolis.
According to Betsy McCulley, author of City at the Water’s Edge, “we tend to see nature and city in opposition.” A quiet, unspoiled, innocent nature is at the mercy of sprawling consumption; New York City is the hungry machine. Since its colonial origins as a Dutch trading post, New York City has concretized itself (quite literally) as a global center of human progress situated on one of the world’s largest natural harbors. But underneath the concrete floors and through the glass walls of approximately one million nearly indistinguishable buildings, lies a living truth: a human and non-human community inextricably linked to our bioregion.
Imagine a Times Square where Red Maples and American Chestnuts grow nearly a hundred feet tall, providing shade, sustenance, and habitat for the critters below. Gray Wolves, Bobcats, and Mountain Lions survey the old-growth, deciduous forest floor for prey, like Eastern Cottontails and White-tailed Deer. The occasional Snapping Turtle wanders from the river to lay her eggs in the warm, rich earth; she’s careful not to become dinner for a lucky human. Though much of the biodiversity that once made up pre-1609 Mannahatta, the adjacent mainland (in the Bronx), Wamponomon (Queens and Brooklyn), and on the south side of the harbor (Staten Island) has been lost to colonial ecocide and aggressive urbanization, a group of warm-blooded vertebrates continues to remind us of the City’s wildness.
New York City is home to over 400 species of birds living in or stopping over its 193,700 acres of urban, wetland, forest, and grassland habitat. Every spring and fall, millions of birds repeat their ancient cycle of migration through New York City, journeying along the “Atlantic Flyway” in search of food and breeding opportunities. As the birds follow a promising, blue haze on the horizon, they’re no longer met with a forested island of Maples and Chestnuts; rather, choice green oases amidst a maze of reflective glass. According to New York City Audubon’s research, up to a quarter of a million of these migrating birds are killed in the City each year in collisions with building glass. Nevertheless, the birds return again to remind us, despite rapid habitat degradation and fragmentation, that this wild city was once – and still is – their home.
As the FAO Schwarz Fellow at NYC Audubon, I am most interested in the intersectional challenges we face as an island megapolis in a time of global, anthropogenic change. Environmental pressures – like urban development – disproportionately affect urban wildlife as well as communities of color, illuminating a clear relationship between issues like habitat loss and gentrification. In a time of global climate crisis, it must be understood that the outcomes for New York City, its human and non-human dwellers, and its bioregion are undoubtedly entangled. To best address this looming pan-ecological disaster, we must work to address the living truth of our home and our neighbors. We must reconfigure and reimagine the nature of the City, and develop intimate knowledges of this place and its critters. Though much of this place is covered in a concrete veneer and many of its critters scarce or destroyed, the birds lead us to little pockets of something different. The birds take us to the rooftops, the beaches, the cemeteries, and the parks. They announce their continued survival in soaring melodies over sirens and car horns. When we listen, we can no longer see our City as a triumph over nature or a testament to masterful technology. No longer protected by arrogant presumptions of human superiority, we become curious about the land we inhabit and our fellow City dwellers (human animals and non-human animals alike).
Riding the train home from Coney Island, I watch the vast, blue Atlantic fade behind new construction along the tracks. Rock Pigeons balance on the edges of the half-finished buildings’ harsh, modern design — I wonder who will live there, and I wonder who lived there before.
McCully, Betsy. City at the Water’s Edge a Natural History of New York. Rivergate Books, an Imprint of Rutgers University Press, 2007.
“NYC Audubon,” https://www.nycaudubon.org/.
“The Welikia Project.” The Welikia (“Way-LEE-Kee-Uh”) Project, https://welikia.org/.
Hunt, Christian. “The Second Great American Extinction Event (1600s to 1900s).” Wild Without End, Defenders of Wildlife, 18 Nov. 2018, https://medium.com/wild-without-end/the-second-great-american-extinction-event-1600s-to-1900s-d6e07985116e.
Chaudhuri, Una. The Stage Lives of Animals: Zooësis and Performance. Routledge, an Imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.
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Feature image by Anne Schwartz.