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Book Review: The Nature of New York

The Nature of New York

by David Stradling

Cornell University Press, 2011

The title of the book by David Stradling (Cornell University Press) is The Nature of New York, but that could just as well be “nature and culture” of New York. Nature is the topic. But the book is about what New Yorkers have done to nature for good or ill. And frequently ill. But in the ill cases invariably under the guise of doing some good for someone, some segment of society. And sometimes achieving that good. But often to the eventual harm of nature and society both.

The book provides a detailed overview of our long and complicated love affair with the natural environment, featuring episodes of romantic ecstasy as well as episodes of betrayal. And ventures beyond the woods and fields and streams into the urban world most of us inhabit. Ultimately, it connects environmental issues with the urban crisis.

New York could be said to have initiated the impulse to appreciation of the natural environment, in connection with the Hudson River School of painting in the mid-19th century. The idea of parks and recreation areas as spiritual respite amenities for urbanites was promulgated by the paintings and the painters, the likes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church, and their crowd, including landscape architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose achievements included New York’s magnificent Central Park, Buffalo’s marvelous connected parks system, and the Niagara Reservation at the Falls, the state’s first public recreational use land acquisition and a model ever after for state and national parklands purchases.

The Romantic notion of rural as somehow spiritually superior to urban got way out of hand in the mid-20th century, particularly in the person of New York City and State planner, visionary, and autocrat Robert Moses, whose profligate transformations of areas around cities into parkways, that is, limited access highways, as the quickest, most efficient way to transport harried city dwellers to the rural open spaces where they could breathe free, resulted in the monumentally ill-considered creation of suburbia, and consequent gradual impoverishment, and devastation of the cities.

All on behalf of white city dwellers, who owned cars, and would own suburbia, which was racially segregated from its first beginnings to the present day.

Whereupon, New York contributed Jane Jacobs, who pretty much single-handedly engineered the paradigm shift in planning that rejected the monomaniacal not so much natural-environment-oriented as automobile-oriented ideas of Moses and his legion of community planner followers. The ultimate lesson was that neither did rural exist for the sake of urban, nor urban for the sake of rural, but balance and harmony had to exist for either realm to prosper.

New York also contributed two environmental preservation governors, then presidents, both by the name of Roosevelt. The Great Depression of the 1930s was the stock market’s somewhat tardy manifestation of the rural areas’ depression of the 1920s, to a large extent the result of the depletion of agricultural lands that had been forest lands originally, then were stripped of forest and devoted to unmitigated crop production for several generations. As president, Franklin Roosevelt’s creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps (modeled on a program he had created as governor of New York) as a save-the-environment-through-reforestation effort was the most successful of his programs to get the country back to work and on its feet again after the market crash.

In the latter part of the 20th century, environmental crises in and around the Hudson (where the environmental movement got started a century and a half earlier, and the latter-day crises engendered the national but always first local Riverkeeper movement) and at Love Canal in Niagara Falls taught private citizens and communities that they could stand up against the industry giants and so-called regulatory bodies that weren’t regulating, and prevail. Whereupon, environmental activism moved into the cities in a large way, taking up health and general social welfare causes from lead paint to garbage disposal to recycling. Even as other private organizations, with encouragement and help from the state, including enabling legislation, made serious progress in the reservation and preservation hopefully forever of wilderness areas in the Adirondacks and Catskills, and the reforestation of less appropriate lands for agriculture, because of topography or worn-out soils. (The unhappy aspect is that the availability of such lands for reforestation is largely due to the drastic decline in number of farms and amount of agricultural product in the state in recent years. Agriculture has traditionally been New York State’s major industry.)

“Nature is on the side of New York,” an early environmentalist observed, with particular reference to the one break in the continent-long chain of the Appalachians being along the Mohawk River Valley, allowing construction of the Erie Canal linking the Hudson to the Great Lakes. Fostering industrial development and population growth that put New York State ahead of the pack in the creation of environmental problems, but also ahead of the pack in the recognition of the need for and creation of legal structures to control and mitigate the problems.

Not that any of the problems are solved. But in contending with them, New York State has been and remains the model.

If it’s not too late. Not any problems are solved, and as to the biggest environmental problem of all, global warming, nobody even as yet has come up with a strategy. (Except for the strategy of denial, which as global warming has become more and more patent over the last few years, the national Republican party, in its implacable cynicism and dishonesty, has established more and more as party dogma.)

jack foran

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