SUPERSTORM SANDY’S WORST SURGE stopped a little more than a block from my home. The hurricane pushed enough extra water into the tiny Gowanus Canal to raise sea level by more than 10 feet, inundating surrounding homes, businesses and warehouses. A line of detritus — sticks and boxes but also a trademark rainbow oily sheen — showed the high water mark.
In the days after, I encountered families walking under downed tree limbs held up by sagging cable lines, shop owners snapping insurance pics before removing sandbags and stepping out of the way of escaping muck waters, and even young folks suited up in brilliant white Tyvek hazmat suits to clean out a flooded compost lot and rain garden. That's resilience.
But, in a sense, Sandy realized one of American culture's favorite nightmares: the destruction of New York City.
When did that fantasy begin? Is it as old as New Amsterdam, which was obliterated, at least in name, by the more militantly naval English? Is it even older than that: old Mannahatta "destroyed" for some Dutch trinkets? For Whitman, the city seems to have always existed inside the "aboriginal" name. A century and a half later, Whitman’s Mannahatta is uncanny for its timeless accuracy:
…nested in nests of water-bays, superb, with tall and wonderful spires,
hemm’d thick all around with sailships and steamships — an island sixteen miles
Numberless crowded streets…
A time before the city — and the nagging potential for destruction — is almost harder to imagine than a time after it. There have been attempts to resurrect in words the meadows of Harlem or waterways of Canal Street, linking them to a future long after the city is gone (I’m thinking here of books like Eric Sanderson’s beautiful Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City). But Sandy was more convincing than any book. The surge revealed the potential for pre-history’s return — flooding those parts of the city made by man, the filled up places like Battery Park City or the pestilential swamp surrounding the Gowanus Canal.
Flood is probably the oldest fantasy of destruction — a narrative informed by the original Biblical flood, perhaps some dim oral memory of the catastrophic sea level rise that breached the Bosporus and created the Black Sea, and certainly drowned coastal habitation on every coast. That includes the Americas, where the land bridge that helped our original immigrants arrive at these shores sank beneath the waves, along with countless villages, some of which can still be found by marine-equipped archeologists.
Noah's Ark in the Anthropocene has a new look to go along with updated mythologies: the engineering fantasy of a sea wall or tidal barrier to hold back the encroaching sea. Here in New York Harbor, this sets us on the same watery path followed by our Dutch forebearers in their subsiding river delta homeland. Red Hook's current Waterfront Museum — the old Lehigh Valley No. 79 working barge — could have served as an ark-like refuge for some pair of stranded Brooklynites perhaps, floating up to the undrenched floors of the Civil War-era warehouse on the waterfront and docking at one of the new condos' storm-shuttered windows. Red Hook's drowned fate would be mimicked by those communities outside any future sea...read more