The Urban Scientist

Manhattan: The next Atlantis?

Random musings from a windy day

April 25, 2012

When I first moved to Brooklyn, I went running almost every day, along a park that snakes in a thin strip from the pier by my apartment, along the Upper Bay, to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. I needed to battle my New York-induced claustrophobia by inhaling the freshest air available into my 22-year-old lungs, lungs that had spent their first 21 years breathing country air.

One time, when I was stretching at the edge of the pier and in a klutzy moment, I dropped the keys to my apartment over the railing’s edge and watched them be consumed by the water below within milliseconds. Gone, eaten up so quickly by the water that, for a moment, I could understand how some people consider the ocean a limitless sink.

Sitting at the pier on a bright winter day five months later, I wonder if the keys are still below me somewhere close by, stuck in the muck that I imagine exists at the bottom of a bay that is overcome with steamboats and surrounded by development. In one direction, the skyscrapers of Manhattan rise, emasculating the island on which the city rests, and in the other direction, the Verrazano spans two shores in a feat of engineering that shows triumph over gravity.

Living in New York makes it easy to assume that we have gotten to a point where we can manipulate nature to our liking; the sheer volume of people that we have managed to house on such a small plot of land seems emblematic of our success. But today, I’m not so sure this is true. On further consideration, Manhattan is reduced to a blot a few inches tall — the majority of what I see is the crisp cloudless sky and the whirling water that serves as a dynamic mirror to the sunlight. After further contemplation, the Verrazano is simply a concrete example of man’s effort to navigate nature; its opaque blue metal is less graceful when compared to the dancing waves sparkling below.

We can connect islands with tunnels and bridges, but we cannot move them closer together. We can heat our homes to provide havens from the chilly winter, but after no more than a half hour sitting beneath winter’s weak sun, I’ve lost the feeling in my fingers. We can cover nature with our buildings, roads and sidewalks, but we keep a wary eye on the sea level, lest it threaten to flood our concrete jungle as Irene caused us to fear it could. We can cause all sorts of imbalances in the atmosphere, sea and earth, but we are not safe from the retaliation of which nature has already demonstrated itself capable.

New York City may be one of the most developed blocks of land around, but from a pier just a few miles south in Brooklyn, I can measure it with two fingers like I’m some silly tourist looking for a goofy photo opp. From this vantage point, it’s about as big as one of the keys the Bay already swallowed up, and maybe one day it too will be below the water, beyond rescue, gone and forgotten.

About the Author

Susan E. Matthews

Susan E. Matthews is trading the hills of New Hampshire for New York City, as she comes to SHERP straight after graduating from Dartmouth College. As an environmental studies major, she worked in a biogeochemistry lab and traveled through southern Africa. She found her true passion, however, in writing for and ultimately being editor-in-chief of Dartmouth’s daily paper. SHERP provides a lovely solution to bridging her two interests, and she can’t wait to get back to the reporting side of journalism. Follow her on Twitter @_susanematthews


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