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The Concrete Jungle

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Marine Park, Brooklyn (left); Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan (right).  

Indeed, as scientists explore the abandoned dumping grounds of Canarsie, or the beat-up marshes where the saltwater of New York Harbor meets the streams that still run out of the hills in Queens, they are discovering the depth of our wilderness. We’ve long known that our waters are home to herring, mackerel, shad, blues, anchovies, blackfish, stripers, crappies, Lafayettes, tomcod, hake, eel, weakfish, killifish, and perch—but we’re only starting to understand that they swim above a still-operative and vibrant food chain of smaller creatures. Just beyond Exit 30 on the L.I.E., there are secret, untended forests, where black locusts shoot sprouts through the rusty chassis of abandoned cars. On Staten Island, great-blue and black-crowned night herons nest in hundreds of acres of marsh grass, and racer snakes and spring peepers live in kettle ponds. A few hundred feet beyond the runways of JFK, dolphins arrive in schools every spring. In a survey taken this past June, scientists turned up more bird species in Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge than in Yellowstone and Yosemite parks combined—and nearly half of all the bird species found in North America.

This is New York’s nature. At its wildest, it exists in the places humans let be, either because we mapped it as parkland and forgot about it, or we abandoned it as ruin, allowing it to transform yet again. Look at a place like Willow Lake in Flushing Meadows Corona Park: What was once a tidal wetland had been filled with Gatsby’s ash heaps, then covered over by Robert Moses for the 1939 World’s Fair, subsequently turned into ball fields, which frequently flooded and were eventually neglected. What has returned? Wetlands. “It’s almost like they’re under there and trying to come back,” says Ellen Pehek, an ecologist who has worked for the city’s Parks Department for twelve years. “When they flood, you find bullfrogs there. It’s like they know.

“When you write grants to get funding, people say, ‘Oh, you are not going to find any diversity in the city,’ ” Pehek continues. “But that’s wrong. Sometimes you’re in an area that’s degraded and seems like there is going to be no diversity—but there is. Like in Ocean Breeze Park, on Staten Island. It used to be brackish marshes, but they dumped sand on it when they built the Verrazano. Then the springs began to well up, and now they are like coastal ponds, which are rare, and it’s got grassland birds that are rare in the city, and there are dragonflies like the Rambur’s forktail and Needham’s skimmer that are rare in the state. That’s where people are mistaken about urbanization. It just makes things different.”

Nature has been working off our radar, and we are just now seeing the unexpected environmental consequences of building the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, or losing our shipping industry, or choosing to turn our backs on the banks of the Harlem River. But part of the reason why it’s taken so long to discover New York’s nature is that this is not the nature we had been looking for. It’s less precious. It’s the opposite of pristine. In the city, we live in a nature that is even more resourceful and resilient than we have ever imagined. And when you look at nature that way, of course there are coyotes in New York. Look at all the forests and small mammals—not just rats, but also voles, chipmunks, and small red foxes—with whom we share the city. The question becomes: Where has the coyote been, and why are we so reluctant to have him? Why can’t we see the nature that we are living in?

On its surface, just below the Colonial-era dam at 182nd Street, the Bronx River looks almost unspoiled. But it’s been around too long for that. When the headwaters of the river were dammed, the river was used as a sewage ditch, earning, in 1892, that classic urban-river sobriquet, “an open sewer.” Even now, after neighborhood groups began pulling appliances out of it in the seventies and the Feds directed over $15 million to its restoration in the nineties, it is often injected with sewage outflows.

Earlier this summer, a recent Ph.D. grad named Robert Leaf was on all fours, sorting through the muck. A heating-oil spill from an apartment building in Westchester recently sent oil leaking through the sewers, killing a few dozen birds. “Yeah, you’d better wash your hands after this,” he tells me.

Leaf is acting on a tip from an ex-cop turned naturalist who had seen something interesting in the mud: mussels. And not the common zebra mussels that are clogging up the Great Lakes, but native Eastern floaters. This was a potentially major discovery. One of the great incongruities of the New York Harbor is that, despite centuries of industrial pollution, it is the only estuary on the East Coast that still sustains its historic fish stocks. It follows, logically, that an estuary robust enough to support fish would be active all the way down the food chain, but nobody until now had thought to investigate whether that would include native mussels growing below the sewer outflow in the Bronx River.


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