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!