BY TWO IN THE MORNING, New York is as quiet as it gets. You can walk for blocks up Broadway and hardly see a moving car; you can stand at the corner of Forty-Second and Fifth and, sometimes, smell the sea. By three in the morning, the planet’s most profoundly developed real estate has nearly shimmered back into its earliest self, forty rocky islands set in river, bay, and sound: Rikers, Swinburne, Black Bank, Plum. North Brother, and Castle, and Cuban Ledge. The Isle of Meadow. Ellis, and Coney. Long Island, where Brooklyn elbows Queens. Staten. Manhattan.
Of New York’s five great boroughs, only the Bronx is part of the North American continent, and it contains both New York City’s worst slums and its best stand of virgin timber. Manhattan is the most densely populated New York borough, Staten Island the most rural, Brooklyn the most populous. Queens is the largest in area and the most ethnically varied, even in a city where a third of the residents are foreign-born.
By four in the morning, each member of this urban archipelago sails alone. To go directly from Wall Street to Staten Island now, you almost need a kayak, or a canoe; the New York airports are silent, the commuter ferries rock at pierside, and the river tunnels have nearly emptied too, their fluorescent lights fizzing peach and ice-white and spring-green fifty feet below the Hudson, churned by twice-a-day tides from sweet to salt. Tropical butterflyfish, gold and silver, black and white, are dozing beneath the city’s piers and pilings, their colors dimmed as they rest. Warm Atlantic currents sweep coral-reef species into the New York estuary every year. Sea turtles, some the size of hubcaps, others half the size of full-grown steers, can be in the harbor too, usually dragged in by tankers. These do not care for city life, so the local Coast Guard has become proficient at turtle rescue and release. The Hudson is a blackwater river, with all the underwater visibility of chocolate milk, and a loud one, especially in winter, when snowflakes striking the water’s surface set up a high-frequency roar. Human senses miss the snow-thunder entirely, but for eel and sturgeon, the great river is as noisy as Times Square.
Throughout the urban night, New York’s 722 miles of subway line stay open, though service slows. Here an A train snakes east through the Jamaica marshes, there a late run noses toward the Columbia campus through its caves of white Inwood marble and grey Fordham gneiss. But the big roadways into the city are nearly deserted at this hour. Tolltakers nod in their booths beside the New York exit ramps of the Garden State Parkway, or the empty EZ-Pass lanes flung across the Tappan Zee. Even in Van Cortland Park, crossed by three Bronx expressways, the flying squirrels have emerged to dine and socialize, soaring from branch to branch under the municipal moon.
By five in the morning, some nights, the moon is down, sunk beyond the benzene inlets and cyanide pools of the Jersey Meadowlands west of town. The gently radioactive hills of Staten Island, veined with uranium-rich red and green serpentinite, are dwarfed by the dark bulk of the Fresh Kills landfill at the island’s south end, at five hundred feet tall the highest point on the eastern seaboard. A few commercial fishing boats are still moving up the harbor, glimmering belowdecks with bluefish and cod for the city’s five thousand restaurants; in urban bakeries from Canarsie to Turtle Bay, the yeast is popping and working in the dough. Though dance clubs and emergency rooms and newsrooms have stayed wakeful, most of New York’s eight million humans lie unconscious in their rented burrows, the city’s dominant daylight species finally, grudgingly, asleep. Only the skyline blazes.
In the New York financial district, between midnight and dawn, security guards patrolling near the World Trade Center watch the night sky above Manhattan’s tip, and listen for birdsong. Billions of migrating birds rush over North America twice a year, seeking breeding grounds and winter homes, heading north with the spring and south in fall. Nearly a hundred species pass directly over Manhattan Island. Some of these long-distance commuters like to call to one another as they fly: white-throated sparrows heading from Honduras to breeding grounds in Quebec, magnolia warblers making the run from Panama to the Adirondacks. When the seasons are changing, you can stand on Wall Street in the small hours and hear the migrants calling, faint and high, as they stream above the sleeping city. Some travel singly, some in groups: a kettle of hawks, a siege of herons, a wedge of swans. Aerial traffic rises near each equinox, but migrating birds fly over Manhattan nearly every night in the year.
AT SIX IN THE MORNING on this raw October Saturday, the financial district is deserted, and cloud wraps the twin corporate towers of the World Trade Center and the World Financial Center from base to crown. “I’ve brought fresh mealworms,” Rebekah Creshkoff assures me, patting a side pocket in her khaki vest as we turn onto a silent Vesey Street. During the work week, Creshkoff tries to carry mealworms in her purse, just in case, but she probably will not use them today. Last night was foggy, and she expects the worst.
“Slink along the walls, so we don’t startle anything,” Creshkoff warns, scanning a concrete walkway beside the American Express headquarters. False alarm: wet cigar. False alarm: banana peel. First live sighting: a male cardinal perched in a potted yew, looking sleepy and cross. On the dank pavement beyond is a small still form. “Blackpoll,” says Creshkoff softly, bending down — “no, black-and-white warbler.” She spreads its wings with a fingertip, turns the creamy breast skyward to examine the ebony stippling, and peers at a still-lustrous dark eye. Then she seals the body in a plastic Ziploc bag, scribbles on it the date and place of discovery, and tucks the dead warbler deep in another vest pocket.
Rebekah Creshkoff is a latecome birder who grew up in New Jersey, went to Brandeis and Sarah Lawrence, and then (years into a business career) took a birding class on whim. She liked it enough to enter a Columbia University certification program in conservation biology. Creshkoff knows the financial district’s glassy maze by heart because she works here, as a corporate communications officer at the Chase Manhattan Bank. But often she leaves her Upper West Side apartment at 5:45 a.m., biking eight miles down-island to check in with porters and doormen and security patrols, who tell her what they have seen in the night. Manny at the World Trade Center is especially vigilant.
“He’s been picking up injured flyers for years,” says Creshkoff, waving to a massive bundled figure. “He feels sorry for them. A big kid, and such tiny birds.” Manny’s tips, as always, are to the point. Stunned bird, near a brokerage entrance. Dead bird, on the Vesey Street sidewalk. Dazed and frantic bird, trapped under a glass overhang; seeing a Ficus tree in the lobby, it apparently tried to roost but smashed into the building’s window wall instead, confused by multiple reflections from wet marble and shadowy panes.
We trace a looping path around the bases of World Trade Towers One and Two, looking for crash victims. Rats the size of guinea pigs chitter to one another as they search the corporate lawns for injured songbirds to devour. “I found a scarlet tanager trapped in that revolving door once,” says Creshkoff, pointing. “I put it in a vest pocket, called my office to say I had a dentist’s appointment, and took it on the subway to Central Park.” Liberated at the 59th Street entrance to Central Park, the tanager vanished into the treetops.
When Creshkoff does find stunned birds in the financial district, she coaxes them into a paper bag, carries them to shelter (an atrium garden, a corporate tree), then offers fresh mealworms and second chances. If she encounters a survivor, she can’t keep it; under the federal Migratory Bird Act of 1916, you can be in possession of a live bird for twenty-three hours, but not twenty-five.
Mostly she finds the dead. The bright lights of office towers seem to short-circuit the natural navigational abilities of birds in flight. Sophisticated city breeds like pigeons and sparrows stay calm when they see a city skyline at night. Songbirds travel late, when air currents are calmest, and steer by the stars. But Manhattan buildings can be a quarter-mile high. Migrants see lights directly in their flight path, follow them trustingly, then circle the Chrysler Building or the World Trade Center, mesmerized, until exhaustion claims them.
In Toronto, thanks to a special plea by Prince Philip and the World Wildlife Fund, many hotel and office towers now turn off lights during migration season, even though it means relocating night workers to interior offices, rewiring lights, and sending employees out each morning to rescue fallen warblers. Chicago has begun a similar program, on a smaller scale. Hearing of the Toronto efforts, Creshkoff wanted to go to Manhattan building managers and ask their help directly. Better to collect hard evidence, the Canadians told her. So casualties retrieved on Creshkoff’s rounds find temporary storage in her apartment freezer. When there’s no more room for the Häagen-Dazs, she Fedexes a load of frozen birds to researchers at Maryland’s Patuxent Avian Research Laboratory. They send her a special cooler; she fills it with skyscraper kill and ships it back; they pay.
“It’s hard to imagine New York’s commercial landlords voluntarily dimming their lights at night,” says Creshkoff gloomily. Though you never know — there’s closet birders everywhere.” (The Empire State management will sometimes dim their building in migration season, a welcome exception.)
We slink on, veering toward the brokerages nearer the harbor, checking the overpasses between buildings, the empty sidewalks, and the Winter Garden, whose handsome expanses of lighted glass are a prime deathtrap for birds. Creshkoff points again. Hopping at the edge of a steam grate is a young female yellowthroat (a neotropical migrant, my Peterson’s field guide notes: summers in Canada, winters in the West Indies).
“The yellowthroats are tiny but resilient,” says Creshkoff, watching it explore the gutter, head cocked. “Over half will live, once trapped among these buildings. Most songbirds won’t.”
Dawn is finally here, the chill half-light turning from slate grey to pearl all around us, the corporate towers vanishing halfway up into sea fog. Creshkoff’s early-morning tours have brought all sorts of wild encounters. One spring, she found a live female red-bellied woodpecker clinging to a polished marble wall; and once a little brown bat huddled on a steel pillar, dazed with cold. She has found a dozen stranded woodcocks, as well as a Virginia rail which wandered the World Trade plaza for nearly a week, subsisting on French fries.
On her worst day ever, Creshkoff logged sixty-four birds, all dead. A good day, always, means capturing survivors and getting them to open space. World Trade victims are usually discovered in the margins and shadows, fatally baffled by stone, steel, and glass. On a Marriott walkway, we find a black-throated blue warbler with a broken neck; it probably flew to its death trying to reach the reflected trees in the hotel’s window wall. “The black-throated blues are extremely vulnerable to city lights,” Creshkoff says. “I’ve never found a live one.”
As we cross the barren plazas, looking, knots of homeless men have begun to stand and stretch. The great towers have begun to warm up too, and make small creaks and chirpings as they do, disconcerting to a birder. Soon this plaza will close for the winter, before the annual ice falls can begin. A hard winter in downtown Manhattan sends ice slabs dropping into the World Trade courtyard from 110 stories up. Halfway across the largest plaza, we spot a white-throated sparrow and a hermit thrush wandering the concrete reaches in short puzzled flights. “Hurry, guys,” Creshkoff pleads. The peregrine falcons who nest on a window ledge near Wall Street will soon begin their morning hunt.
Six World Trade Center is the last set of glass walls between fallen migrants and the New Jersey hills, but in a dim corner we find a white-throated sparrow, several days dead.
From a concrete planter comes a sudden frantic chirring. “Oh, my God, a winter wren! Jesus Christ! Be careful, boy!” The wren, small, dark and round, darts down a pillared concourse and is lost to sight. We follow. No sign of the wren, but slumped in a dark corner is a dead female yellowthroat, her body still quite warm. The yellowthroat’s wing feathers ripple for an instant in the Hudson River wind. Sighing, Creshkoff digs for a Ziploc.
“I could put her in an envelope and mail her with one first-class stamp. Feel how light.”
Another Wall Street loss. I look up at the great towers with the clouds about their knees, and stroke the honey and amber of the dead breast. If I had not seen the warbler lying in my hand, I would swear my palm were empty.
WHEN HISTORIANS LOOK at New York, they see an overgrown port town that exists for just one reason: making money. When sociologists look at New York, they perceive two cities: the workaday outer boroughs have far more in common with Rust Belt capitals like Baltimore or Cleveland than with theatrical, ravenous, self-centered Manhattan. When human geographers look at New York, they see a viewshed (the places where Manhattan’s skyline is first visible on the horizon, night and day). Or they map the city’s news-shed, within which the New York Daily News is the morning’s first read and not, say, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and sometimes its sports-shed as wellâ€”the zip codes where Yankees and Knicks are considered home teams.
Physical geographers studying the metropolitan area prefer to learn its watersheds, the areas of land that drain rainwater and snowmelt into the nearest marsh or lake or stream. Though New York is a strikingly energy-efficient city — mostly because it stacks and packs its residents, then makes them use mass transit — the New York suburbs invented sprawl, and sprawl makes floods, bad ones. Turbodevelopment has erased ninety per cent of the New York region’s original marshes and meadows, and the replacement fields of asphalt and concrete neatly repel water instead of letting it soak in.
When political scientists look at the New York conurbation, they see one of the great unnatural wonders of the policy world. The New York area is the most elaborate, least manageable civic aggregation in human history, a polycentric supramegalopolis. New York ignores the nation at its back whenever it can. It would like to be a city-state, but in four centuries has devised neither a governing authority nor (unlike New England or Southern California) a convincing regional narrative.
In the last fifty years, New York has outgrown at least three tries at definitive labeling. The postwar boom saw it evolve from an Industrial Age metropolis with one eye on Pittsburgh and St. Louis into a world capital of culture, finance, and communication whose real peers were London and Paris. By the mid-1950s and early 1960s — New York’s Augustan age — urbanologists declared New York the star of Megalopolis, the six-hundred-mile skein of development from Boston to Washington that knits the Eastern Seaboard into one long, thin, supercilious supercity. Now urbanologists have begun to call New York our prime example of the galactic city. A galactic city (a term invented by geographer Peirce Lewis of Pennsylvania State University) is a tissue of development so vast that it creates its own order, in a burst of edge cities and technoburbs. In the galactic city, suburbs and exurbs no longer push outward from an urban core like rings on a tree. Instead, most expeditions and interactions are suburb to suburb; you create your own metropolis, measuring distance in travel time, not in miles from some distinctive central feature like Times Square or the Loop. Everyone’s galactic-city map is different: the favored supermarket is ten minutes away, the preferred mall thirty minutes in another direction, the workplace forty minutes distant — urbanism a la carte.
But to an ecologist, New York is most interesting as an ecotone, a place where natural worlds collide — northern and southern climate zones overlapping, land meeting ocean, salt water mixing with fresh. Six natural habitats define the City of New York: estuary, salt marsh, woodland, beach, freshwater river, and prairie. Some of these ecosystems are relics now, like the improbable patch of virgin forest in upper Manhattan’s Inwood Hill Park, and some are remakes, like the recreated Eastern grassland at Brooklyn’s old Floyd Bennett airfield. Centuries of human assault on New York’s natural underpinnings has fragmented and degraded all the city’s original habitats, sky and water, leaf and stone.
The earth scientists, especially, believe you cannot know a place without ground-truthing it. Ground truthing is the act of walking a piece of ground, or flying low over it, or rowing the waters around it, taking time to see as well as look, rather than trusting what tradition says is there, or what theory tells you should be. Manhattan is indeed the world’s most densely developed real estate, as New York and its outliers are the very paradigm of sprawl. But even in the ultimate city — especially in the ultimate city — what you see depends on where you stand.
All five New York boroughs retain places where you can walk for hours and see no human near. Northern Manhattan has its lonely salt marshes; the Staten Island Greenbelt, three times the size of Central Park, shelters spring-fed kettle ponds and dwarf-pine forests. The Brooklyn Grassland';s gentle prairie by the bay, punctuated by an abandoned control tower, supports 140 acres of wildflowers and big bluestem, a scene straight out of Kansas. Beside New York’s largest airport, JFK International, lies the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, some parts all marsh, others sand and cactus. Snowy owls come to Jamaica Bay when the weather turns cold, eager to hunt rats and rabbits along the runways next door. The level winterscape of the great airport apparently reminds them of their native tundra in Siberia and Baffin Bay; whole clans of snowy owls now fly down from the Arctic each year to winter in Queens.
When a snowy owl looks at New York, it sees safety. And lunch. And a frontier. A great many birds and animals are discovering that city living can be less stressful than a career in the wild. Natural time scales may differ from ours, but nature’s agenda never changes. It will take over, if it can. New York is the best possible place to start. Ecologists know that big cities are far more friendly to wildlife than small ones, because the potential habitat is both immense and varied. Parks and greenways and suburban gardens offer ideal hiding places and travel corridors; urban creeks and backyard lap pools and corporate fountains yield reliable fresh water. To a 21st-century raccoon or deer, New York (or Atlanta, or Frankfurt) looks like a fine big animal sanctuary, with the prime food sources in the middle of town.
Sometimes the incoming species are only taking over parts of the city that we avoid. Of the nation’s twenty-five largest cities in 1950, eighteen had lost population to the ‘burbs by 2000, the vertical city succeeded by the horizontal city. Urban researchers call it the paradox of the green ghetto, best seen in depopulating urban settings like the modern ruins of downtown Detroit, where pheasants fly over the aging freeways; in East Saint Louis, where weeds cover railroad tracks and the basics of city life — a corner store, a taxicab, a fire department — are rare sightings; in North Philadelphia, where small trees have begun to grow in the streets. New York is unusual because it still has a lively downtown, making it one of very few U.S. cities with both a vital heart and an active edge. But overall, the American city, in the last fifty years, has become more crowded and voracious at the margins, quieter and greener and wilder at the core.
AFTER TWENTY YEARS spent in and around America’s largest city, I have begun to notice odd alterations in the texture of daily life here, little slubs in the weave. A cornfield appeared on Upper Broadway Avenue: a Dominican immigrant had noticed a nice piece of land going to waste, there in the median strip, and decided to farm it; the city let him. When a distinctly under-the-weather fox visited the inner suburbs, its cityward progress was breathlessly chronicled on New York’s all-news stations (“to see what a fox looks like, especially a rabid one, go straight to our website at www.1010.wins!”). By 1999, coyotes and wild turkeys had begun to roam Central Park (“How did they get there?” demanded the Wall Street Journal. “Crosstown bus?”). By 2000, black bears had visited Chappaqua and the Palisades Parkway. White-tailed deer came back to Manhattan for the first time in generations, making late-night dashes down the Amtrak trestle at the tidal strait called Spuyten Duyvil, on the island’s north end, where Henry Hudson once came ashore.
And between Newark and the Jersey Meadowlands one winter morning, I spotted from my train window a dozen egrets, flying low above the dank chemical mudflats, an arrow of white headed straight for the World Trade Center. What are they doing here? I wondered, horrified, amazed. How do they live? But a quarter-century of water cleanup has brought ibis and yellow-crowned night herons and the shy and solitary bittern back to that former open sewer, New York Harbor. Hundreds of herons now breed on uninhabited islands off the Bronx and Queens. To see them, you must crawl ashore through great tangles of poison ivy, then hold up a truck mirror to observe their secret rookeriesâ€”but they’re there, and flourishing. I had no idea.
It was a figure-ground problem, really. For years, I had looked at Greater New York and seen only what I expected to — a profoundly unnatural landscape; a competitive maze; a wonder of money and aft that seemed a thrilling human triumph some days and on others a declensionist’s delight. New York attracts jeremiads. Emerson called it a sucked orange, Fitzgerald pronounced its grimy suburban sprawl “the ugliest country in the world,” Vonnegut thought it a skyscraper national park. Yet above, around, behind, below, I began to find another New York, suppressed or silent in daylight, exceedingly lively from twilight to dawn.
The next decades will be the first truly urban period in human history. At the turn of the 21st century, half of us were concentrated in the world’s metropolitan areas, particularly twenty or so emerging supercities, chief among them New York, Los Angeles, London, Rio, Mexico City, Dakarta, Calcutta, and Nairobi. By 2050, three-fourths of our species will be city creatures. Already, one American in fifteen lives in New York, or in the New York suburbs.
Yet throughout the U.S., as from Toronto to Tokyo, nature/culture confrontation is becoming part of urban, suburban, and periurban routine. Some encounters charm us; some we dread; others we badly misunderstand. New York has long cultivated an edgy relationship with nature, that big green blur between the lobby and the cab. To be vague or dismissive about the natural world is the last acceptable prejudice in The City, which talks a lot about diversity, but about biodiversity hardly at all. For centuries now, the City of New York has resolutely rushed ahead, determined to find the best deal, to never waste time, to never show weakness. It rarely looks around, rarely looks back. Maybe it should. Wild does not always mean natural; urban is not the same as tame. Even in Manhattan, you are never more than three feet from a spider.