As a Jersey girl by birth and a one-time resident of Lower Manhattan, the news of Hurricane Sandy hit me hard. Living on the west coast, it’s hard to imagine people navigating the Lower East Side by boat or entire boardwalks along the Jersey shore washed away into oblivion.
Now, as recovery begins, people are starting to ask questions. Are storms like Hurricane Sandy going to become the norm because of global warming? What was the storm trying to tell us about the places we inhabit and the way we inhabit them?
As the rivers surged and flooded into New York City, it brought to the surface an interesting fact unbeknownst to me — much of Lower Manhattan, which experienced some of the most dramatic flooding, is actually built on centuries’ worth of landfill. And with that realization, I began to understand that New York City’s downtown street names are trying to tell us something — they’re holding onto a piece of watery New York history:
The old shoreline of Manhattan was actually Pearl Street, supposedly named after all the oysters in the adjacent river. Most of the ground beyond that is landfill.
While the origins of the name Wall Street are somewhat disputed, popular accounts suggest the street was an actual wall that ran along the old shoreline (starting at Pearl).
Nearby, Canal Street is named after the actual canal that used to be there — it was dug to drain the filthy, diseased Collect Pond (which made the surrounding area even marshier).
And there’s the aptly named Water Street, which became the new shoreline of the East River when the island was extended through landfill in the 18th century.
It shows us that water has long flowed where we now build parks, condos and restaurants. — and for centuries, man has tried to keep it at bay, extending the shoreline of Manhattan. Now, it seems we’re witnessing a battle of man vs. nature as superstorms hit areas like New Jersey, which are typically known for being temperate. Mayor Bloomberg knows he has his work cut out for him if he wants to save the city we all love so much — perhaps his biggest hurdle will be convincing people, once and for all, that global warming is real.