National Geographic

New York City's Wild Past Life

17th-century explorer Henry Hudson had a real knack for making his crew miserable. Among numerous failed attempts to find an all-water passage to Asia, Hudson somewhat accidentally explored what is now Manhattan — exactly this time of year, 400 years ago. Little did his mutinous crew know, this lush landscape would become a global epicenter. It goes without saying that, were they to stumble upon it again today, they would find it slightly altered.

Although Hudson could never see today's Manhattan, we can now get an idea of what he saw that September of 1609 — thanks to The Mannahatta Project, the brainchild of ecologist Eric Sanderson. His project, featured in National Geographic's September issue, shows New York like we've never seen it before: rural enough to make any Manhattanite shudder.

  • Long before Times Square became a tourist mecca, the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway was serene wilderness.
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    Long before Times Square became a tourist mecca, the intersection of Seventh Avenue and Broadway was serene wilderness.
    Art by Philip Straub
  • Two creeks once met here in a red maple swamp, feeding a beaver pond.
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    Two creeks once met here in a red maple swamp, feeding a beaver pond.
    Robert Clark/National Geographic
  • With computer-generated imagery, ecologists can show what Manhattan Island looked like on the September afternoon when  Henry Hudson and his crew sailed into New York Harbor.
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    With computer-generated imagery, ecologists can show what Manhattan Island looked like on the September afternoon when Henry Hudson and his crew sailed into New York Harbor.
    Computer-generated image by Markley Boyer
  • This present-day view of Manhattan Island shows a modern, metallic landscape.
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    This present-day view of Manhattan Island shows a modern, metallic landscape.
    Robert Clark/National Geographic
  • The Collect Pond, once located just west of modern Chinatown, sustained Lenape village tribe before becoming the main freshwater supply for European settlers.
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    The Collect Pond, once located just west of modern Chinatown, sustained Lenape village tribe before becoming the main freshwater supply for European settlers.
    Art by Philip Straub
  • Through the years, the pond was buried under slums, which were later cleared to build today's Foley Square.
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    Through the years, the pond was buried under slums, which were later cleared to build today's Foley Square.
    Robert Clark/National Geographic
  • Jeffrey's Hook, at the narrowest spot between Manhattan and New Jersey, was once a transfer point for American Indians.
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    Jeffrey's Hook, at the narrowest spot between Manhattan and New Jersey, was once a transfer point for American Indians.
    Computer-generated image by Markley Boyer
  • Today the prominent landmark at Jeffrey's Hook is the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge.
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    Today the prominent landmark at Jeffrey's Hook is the Little Red Lighthouse beneath the George Washington Bridge.
    Robert Clark/National Geographic
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The project began when Sanderson came across a topographical map of the region dating to around 1782. The hills and ponds piqued his curiosity, so he matched that map with one from today to see what exactly preceded the Empire State Building, the Brooklyn Bridge, Times Square, etc. Artists Markley Boyer and Philip Straub re-created the old New York to contrast with Robert Clark's contemporary photographs. The result: a before and after spanning nearly half a millennium.

To learn more, take a look at The Mannahatta Project's extensive Web site, read the National Geographic article, or check out this really cool map interactive.

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