The Author’s Corner with Catherine McNeur

Catherine McNeur is Assistant Professor of Environmental History and Public History at Portland State University. This interview is based on her new book, Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City (Harvard University Press, November 2014).

JF: What led you to write Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Before I got started on Taming Manhattan, I had read a passing reference to New York’s hog riots in the early nineteenth century. I was amused by the fact that pigs freely sauntered through the streets, let alone that they were the cause of riots. My reaction, I’ve come to realize, reflects that like many others I make assumptions about what belongs in a city and what doesn’t. As I began to look into these riots and several other environmental battles, I found that the nineteenth century was a moment where these lines between urban and rural were being drawn. The act of drawing those lines legally and culturally was highly contentious because many stood to lose quite a lot as the municipal government pushed livestock and agriculture out of the city and made it harder to earn a living from urban land.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: As cities such as New York transformed beyond recognition from the influx of immigrants and the construction of new buildings, residents found in the urban environment a way to seize control of the seemingly uncontrollable city. While the battles that erupted over the use of the urban environment often led to a tamer, cleaner, and more regulated city, they also amplified environmental injustices and economic disparities.

JF: Why do we need to read Taming Manhattan: Environmental Battles in the Antebellum City?

CM: Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about how to make cities sustainable. Taming Manhattan shows us that “sustainability” meant something completely different in the nineteenth century and will likely mean something completely different in years to come. Today keeping backyard chickens or rooftop beehives is trendy and acceptable by a range of different people and municipalities. You can even buy a $100,000 chicken coop from Nieman Marcus if you were so inclined. However, 150 years ago it was far from fashionable to keep livestock or tend a garden and wealthier New Yorkers actively tried to bring about the death or urban agriculture. In their eyes, getting rid of local food sources would make the city healthier and more sustainable. What we need to remember is that attempts to improve cities usually come with significant social costs that we often overlook.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

CM: I actually majored in urban design rather than history when I was an undergrad. One of the courses I took for that major, though, focused on the architectural history of New York City. Each week the professor led us on walking tours through a different neighborhood, discussing the specific histories of buildings and communities. Having grown up around New York, I was used to the city and its built environment. In fact, it seemed like more of a backdrop than anything else. This class, however, opened my eyes up to the wealth of stories about people, politics, economics, and environments that led to something as simple as the design of a city block. As I got further into that major, I researched the work of an architect in the early republic. I fell in love with the detective work necessary in the archives and there’s been no turning back since.

JF: What is your next project?

CM: Taming Manhattan involves New Yorkers fighting over sizable animals, like sows among other things. For my next project, I’m interested in looking at how early Americans reacted to much smaller creatures from amoeba to insects and what that meant for the way they understood their own bodies and environments. While today we see a budding respect for bacteria as people increasingly embrace probiotics and newspapers report on the importance “good bacteria,” the fear of tiny things has yet to go away. I’m interested in seeing how nineteenth-century Americans confronted these fears.

JF: Good stuff, thanks Catherine!
And thanks to Megan Piette for facilitating this installment of The Author’s Corner

The Author’s Corner with Ted Steinberg

Ted Steinberg is the Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History & Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.  This interview is based on his book Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (Simon & Schuster, June 2014)
JF: What led you to write Gotham Unbound?
TS: The book began in earnest on September 11, 2001. As a child, I had watched the Twin Towers rise and I knew the foundation of the site was ringed by a steel-reinforced concrete wall, the so-called bathtub. The bathtub was there to keep the Hudson River—less than two hundred feet away—at bay. I have given that wall a lot of thought. Without it there is little question that the scale of the 9/11 tragedy would have been even more immense, the wretchedness of that day even more wretched. If the wall represented something invincible about New York, it also said something about the city’s relationship with its surrounding waters: a desire to shut the door on them.

It was while thinking over the meaning of this wall that I came back to a project I first proposed in 1990: a book about the history of land and water in the New York metropolitan area, the place where I was born and raised.

Then I read about a photographer who described that retaining wall at Ground Zero as the equivalent of New York’s Parthenon. Indeed, it turned out, as I later learned, that the retaining wall, if it was going to be viewed as planned by visitors to the 9/11 Memorial, required its own retaining wall. That was the only way to ward off the brackish water lapping at this concrete manifestation of the city’s unconquerable spirit. Slowly the organizing framework for a book about the struggle between New York and the natural world took root.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Gotham Unbound?
TS: The point is often made that New York, because of its location along a large river and with deep water near to shore, was destined to be a great port city. But my argument in Gotham Unbound is not that geography is destiny but in a sense the reverse, that a dense city evolved in the estuary of the Hudson River because of the belief in limitless growth as articulated by those who have run the city since the 1800s.
JF: Why do we need to read Gotham Unbound ?
TS: Two reasons. First, New York’s ecological history is important because the past structures what is possible here in the present and into the future. The fact that so much of Greater New York rests in the one-in-a-hundred-year floodplain, for example, shapes what is possible with respect to the city’s relations with land and sea. Understanding that the metropolitan area sits in the estuary of the Hudson River and what that unique environment means can also help New Yorkers make better sense of their lives today and is a point of entry into discussions about what to do going forward in a world of rising seas. But this is not simply a New York story, which brings me to the second reason behind the book’s importance. Urbanization is raging across the globe. By midcentury, seven out of ten people in the world will live in cities. The bulk of the planet’s largest cities, it turns out, are located in estuaries, precisely the same environment we find in New York. So New York, one of the most engineered landscapes in the world, is a crucially important case study.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
TS: I was fresh out of college in 1983 and working for a publishing company in Boston on a book series titled the Vietnam Experience. There were a lot of interesting and smart people working on this massive multi-volume work. I was given various research tasks, which, to be honest, I never felt particularly motivated to accomplish. I thought: Wouldn’t it be nice to decide for myself what to research and, even better, have the opportunity to write up my own findings.
JF: What is your next project?
TS: I am working on a book about the Tennessee Valley Authority. The idea is to examine the rise and fall of the modern world’s first and most famous example of integrated water control.
JF:  Thanks, Ted!

Paul Harvey on the Colorado Wildfires

Paul Harvey, who lives and works in Colorado Springs, has written the best reflection I have read on the Colorado wildfires.  You must read his “Unnatural Disaster: When Conservative Theology & The Free Market Meet Wildfires.”   It is a masterful synthesis of personal narrative, environmental history, and American religious history. The snippet pasted below does not do the essay justice:

Environmental historians and experts on the history of fire have long explored the ecology of fire in various societies: what fire means, how it is controlled (or left to burn), how resources are allocated to deal with it. What they have dealt with less is the way in which the very emphasis on fire mitigation and maintenance, and reasonable regulation of development in natural fire zones—and in what they call the “wildland-urban interface”—meets resistance from a religious ethic of dominion over the earth that colludes with the libertarian free market enthusiasms of developers who skillfully sell to buyers seeking escape from the Gomorrah of urban America.

Nowhere is that more true than in Colorado Springs, which marries an activist grassroots religious conservatism, faith in (and reliance on) the military-industrial complex, and a historic western libertarian hatred of “big government”—combined with an economic reliance on big government. In a city sometimes referred to as the “Protestant Vatican” for its profusion of religiously conservative activist groups, unregulated housing developments into Wildland-Urban Interface zones have proliferated over the last generation, such that foothills and obvious fire zones boast some of the region’s most geographically attractive housing.

Regulations on developers have historically been light, and homeowners’ associations (according to one nationally known fire mitigation expert) have not always gotten on board with the very preventative mitigation measures which are essential to saving houses. 

Historically, there has been no regional or systemic state authority to assess risks in particular areas, meaning that housing expansion in fire zones, both locally and throughout the western U.S., have garnered a disproportionate share of private and governmentally subsidized resources over (at least) the last two generations. An ethic derived both from nineteenth-century manifest destiny and twentieth-century suburban developmentalism provides a powerful impetus to the sprawl that has expanded locally, both eastward towards the great plains and westward into the foothills and fire zones. And that same ethic will spur prayers for, and the insistence on, rebuilding “bigger and better than ever,” to recreate suburban housing developments in the wildland-urban interface.

In short, a combination of western libertarianism, historically weak governmental structures, and religiously-based desire to possess even the earth that is bound to burn (and to dispute the reality of global warming’s contribution to making fire zones much larger and more volatile than previously) set the stage for the disaster we have just experienced. That is not to discount the natural factors involved, or to ignore the personal tragedies of those who have lost homes and businesses, but to insist that at base a misapplied religious ethic has become part of a mix of factors that have left this region scarred. Maybe God is sending us a message after all; it’s just not one that comports with our national religious mythologies, nor one that free market conservatives, Christian and otherwise, can hear.

Historiann Interviews Mark Fiege

Mark Fiege’s new book The Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States looks fascinating.  According to Historiann (who is Fiege’s colleague at Colorado State), the book examines key episodes in American history from the perspective of environmental history.  These episodes include Salem witchcraft, the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Gettysburg, and Brown v. Board of Education.  I am not an environmental historian, but I like reading environmental history and trying to incorporate it into my courses.   I am thus eager to read to this book.  Here is a taste of Historiann’s interview with Fiege:

Historiann:  Abraham Lincoln and race are emotionally and actually at the center of your book:  Lincoln’s profile at Mt. Rushmore greets us on the dust jacket of your book.  Your introduction opens with a fascinating meditation on the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  Chapters 3 through 5 focus respectively on slavery and cotton production, the mythic and actual biographies of Abraham Lincoln, and the Battle and Address of Gettysburg.  And finally, your interest in race and the color line in American history are evident again in your choice to focus on Brown v. Board of Education in chapter 8.  What is it about Abraham Lincoln and America’s record on race that attracted your interest as an environmental historian?  I can’t help but perceive a rebuke to environmental historians who perhaps have not attended to this aspect of the American historical landscape–or is that an unwarranted assumption?

Mark Fiege:  Researching and writing this book has convinced me that race and the black freedom struggle are central to American history, perhaps even its defining elements. But I’m an environmental historian, and another part of me recognizes that all social struggles unfold in the material medium generally known as nature. So I felt that I had to explain how race and nature are at the heart of the story.

While working on the book, I came across ”Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the national anthem composed in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. I had never heard it performed, so the ethnomusicologist Deborah Wong gave me a version of it on a CD. It is profoundly moving, as great as any of the other national anthems. In it, people wander across an awesome providential landscape until they come to a place where they can live in God’s sheltering grace. It presents a kind of alternative Manifest Destiny that is about redemption, not conquest. It captures perfectly the sense that the struggle is centered in a landscape and involves a people’s special relationship to nature. 
So I think my focus on race is less a rebuke to anyone than an embrace of what I take to be the truth of the matter–that this is what American history, at its core, is really about.