John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
Search block-by-block for the animals, plants, and Native Americans who occupied the island before European settlement.
Before bankers and club kids, Manhattan had gray wolves, harbor porpoises, and the Lenape (aka Delaware Indians). Now New Yorkers can explore where these historical humans and wildlife likely roamed—right down to the block they live on today.
The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Welikia Project (named after the Lenape term for “my good home”) is an ambitious, interactive re-creation of what Manhattan was like in 1609, when the Dutch began settling the island. The landscape would be pretty much unrecognizable to locals today, the society writes:
What we know so far: Through the Mannahatta Project, we learned that the center of one of the world’s largest and most built-up cities was once a remarkably diverse, natural landscape of hills, valleys, forests, fields, freshwater wetlands, salt marshes, beaches, springs, ponds and streams, supporting a rich and abundant community of wildlife and sustaining people for thousands of years before Europeans arrived on the scene in 1609. It turns out that place celebrated for its cultural diversity, was acclaimed by early settlers for its biological diversity and fertility: home to bears, wolves, songbirds, and salamanders, with clear, clean waters jumping with fish, and porpoises and whales in the harbor. In fact, with over 55 different ecological communities, Mannahatta’s biodiversity per acre rivaled that of national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite and the Great Smoky Mountains!
At Welikia, scroll the bottom bar from “present” to “past” to transform the island from a concrete puzzle to a verdant Eden with nary a bridge, dock, or fill-in eating up the water. Then click on a location, or enter its name or address in the search bar, to pull up its natural history. Here’s where the Twin Towers would’ve been, for instance:
Each block or neighborhood gets its own list of possible 17th-century species. The shoreline next to the World Trade Center site had a medium likelihood of harboring meadow voles, white-footed mice, ospreys, redback salamanders, black-cherry trees, and a daisylike plant called prairie fleabane. It was dominated by hillsides and, for the Lenape, had less-than-optimal opportunities for hunting but great chances of foraging.
Going north to what’s now Harlem and Washington Heights reveals a vast plain of edible blackhaw shrubs and starved panicgrass, a stiff green sometimes munched by rabbits and deer. It had a low suitability for human habitation but was just fine for crows, robins, and red-tailed hawks:
Even farther up along the Harlem River was a Lenape encampment, whose inhabitants might’ve shared space with beavers, plovers, flying squirrels, and snapping turtles:
The project is a work in progress with some areas waiting to be filled in. You can help the map grow by offering a donation to the wildlife society, and in return get a shout-out in these unexplored zones once they’re completed.