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City at the Water's Edge

A Natural History of New York

Betsy McCUlly

Publication Year: 2006

Concrete floors and concrete walls, buildings that pierce the sky, taxicabs and subway corridors, a steady din of noise. These things, along with a virtually unrivaled collection of museums, galleries, performance venues, media outlets, international corporations, and stock exchanges make New York City not only the cultural and financial capital of the United States, but one of the largest and most impressive urban conglomerations in the world. With distinctions like these, is it possible to imagine the city as any more than this?

City at the Water's Edge invites readers to do just that. Betsy McCully, a long-time urban dweller, argues that this city of lights is much more than a human-made metropolis. It has a rich natural history that is every bit as fascinating as the glitzy veneer that has been built atop it. Through twenty years of nature exploration, McCully has come to know New York as part of the Lower Hudson Bioregion-a place of salt marshes and estuaries, sand dunes and barrier islands, glacially sculpted ridges and kettle holes, rivers and streams, woodlands and outwash plains. Here she tells the story of New York that began before the first humans settled in the region twelve thousand years ago, and long before immigrants ever arrived at Ellis Island. The timeline that she recounts is one that extends backward half a billion years; it plumbs the depths of Manhattan's geological history and forecasts a possible future of global warming, with rising seas lapping at the base of the Empire State Building.

Counter to popular views that see the city as a marvel of human ingenuity diametrically opposed to nature, this unique account shows how the region has served as an evolving habitat for a diversity of species, including our own. The author chronicles the growth of the city at the expense of the environment, but leaves the reader with a vision of a future city as a human habitat that is brought into balance with nature.


Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-viii

I thank my first reader, Kirkpatrick Sale, whose book Dwellers in the Land inspired me, and whose belief in my project encouraged me to go forward. The urban bioregionalist Peter Berg was an invaluable resource of ideas and materials on the sustainable city. ...

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Introduction: Coming Home

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pp. ix-xii

I chose not to go to the woods. I prefer the company of my fellows and like the colorful jumble of rooftops I view from my window. I like the smooth sidewalks and black-topped streets, especially when they glisten with rain. I take pleasure in walking to the store, in selecting fruits and vegetables from the greengrocer, fresh fish from the fishmonger, ...

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Chapter 1: Bedrock New York

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pp. 1-15

A cold day in January is a good time to walk the beach. Only hardy, beachloving souls are out here on Coney Island, drawn to the shining expanse of the Atlantic lit by the low winter sun as it arcs across the southern sky. A few gulls warm their breasts in the sun, a dog races ecstatically along the water’s edge distantly trailed by his bundled-up owner, ...

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Chapter 2: The Teeming Shore

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pp. 16-31

Looking southward across the water on a clear spring day, I can see the low bluffs of Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and the wave-washed barrier beach of Far Rockaway, two spits of land that form the gateway to Lower New York Bay. The bay’s relatively warm, shallow waters have for millennia been home to a rich abundance of wildlife. ...

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Chapter 3: At the Glacier's Edge

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pp. 32-44

Following a winter snowstorm, I set out to walk the beach. A bitterly cold wind burns my face. My boots crunch through a knee-high crust of ice that looks like a miniature glacier, reminding me of a not-so-distant time when much of the New York region was buried under ice. ...

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Chapter 4: Land of the Lenapes

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pp. 45-61

According to an old Lenape legend, as retold by Hitakonanu’laxk (Tree Beard), there was a time long ago when the game animals disappeared from the Land of the Lenapes. When the chiefs dispatched their best hunters to find them, they discovered the animals had gone to the Land of the Giants, in the far north, where the spruce trees grow. ...

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Chapter 5: Staking Claim

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pp. 62-75

Often during my summer walks on the shore, I come upon the desiccated shell of a female blue crab, recognizable by her bluish gray carapace and legs with reddish orange pincers. It’s just as savory to gulls as to the humans who go crabbing along the jetties here. ...

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Chapter 6: Muddied Waters

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pp. 76-95

Looking across the salt marsh of Jamaica Bay, I see the skyscrapers of Manhattan shimmering in the distance, their hard geometry juxtaposed against the soft muddy lines of tidal flats and wavy grasses. The city seems a world away, and a time apart. Dwarfing the Manhattan skyline, a snowy egret stalks its prey at the edge of the marsh, its head cocked, motionless. ...

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Chapter 7: Footprints

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pp. 96-110

On a humid late summer day, I stand in a trash-strewn parking lot gazing across a steel mesh fence to see a remnant of the only extensive prairie east of the Alleghenies. Once covering sixty thousand acres on western Long Island, what’s left of the Hempstead Plains is now surrounded by concrete fields of malls and highways. ...

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Chapter 8: Forests for Trees

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pp. 111-126

The wooded hill stood in the middle of a leafy suburban New Jersey development. On a beautiful Sunday in September I drove through the neighborhood, enjoying the play of sunlight through the tall trees that shaded the lawns and ranch-style houses. I parked my car in a cul-de-sac at the foot of the hill and got out. ...

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Chapter 9: Urban Flyaway

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pp. 127-145

New York City is along the migratory corridor of Neotropical birds, and Central Park is one of their prime havens. From a birds-eye view, the park must appear like a green oasis in a concrete desert, drawing down thousands of birds to rest and feed before continuing on their long journeys during spring and fall migrations. ...

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Chapter 10: Weathering

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pp. 146-160

When the northeaster of 1992 hit, powerful winds pushed the waters of Lower New York Bay into the cul-de-sac created by western Long Island and New Jersey, forcing them to back up and flood shoreline communities. It was December 11, a night of astronomical significance as the earth, moon, sun, and planets lined up in a phenomenon known as Syzygy. ...


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pp. 161-176


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pp. 177-185

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About the Author

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Betsy McCully is an associate professor of English at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York, where she has taught for ten years. She earned her doctorate in American literature in 1989 at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780813540108
E-ISBN-10: 0813540100
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813539157

Page Count: 200
Illustrations: 18
Publication Year: 2006