There is a natural inclination for us to want to explore a world we know without the general limitations we usually experience. This is the fascination with The Sims, in which we can be trimmer, richer and have non-Ikea furniture. (For those of you with non-Ikea furniture already — ooh, aren’t you fancy?) It’s why, too, I held such eager anticipation for Grand Theft Auto IV. A resident of Liberty City New York, I looked forward to spotting familiar buildings, flying around the boroughs, and murdering my more noxious neighbors.
And it’s why, when I first learned of The Mannahatta Project — an effort to document the geology, geography and ecology of pre-Dutch Manhattan — my first instinct was that I would love a chance to explore the wilds of a forest-covered, hilly island. Grand Theft Wampum.
The book version of the exhibit currently at the City Museum of New York did nothing but whet my appetite. Its descriptions of vistas and its superimposition of forests and swamps over much of the existing landscape didn’t tell me about particular blocks in which I was interested. Enter the interactive map of 17th century Manhattan. We’re not quite at the point in which one can execute canoe-jackings or do drive-bys on a white-tailed deer, but we’re close.
For example, where I sit right now was, in 1609 and until early in the 19th century, the Collect Pond — a freshwater source crucial to the Native American tribes and early settlers of Lower Manhattan. (Once the pond was filled, the area became the notorious Five Points slum, made famous by Gangs of New York and a pre-oil man Daniel Day Lewis. But that’s not really relevant here.)
The map allows those curious to envision what any given area on the island might have looked like when Peter Minuit exchanged a few beads for what is now NYU and some other buildings. Where I live, for example, looked like this in 1609:
Now home to any number of members of Homo sapiens and Mus musculus, 400 years ago one would have found meadow voles, flying squirrels and raccoons. Within a few hundred yards was a Lenape settlement, sitting comfortably on top of a layer of Manhattan schist. It’s detail that is hypnotic in its depth, though it might not make for a great first-person shooter.
The vision of “cyberspace” commonly portrayed in the 1990s was one in which virtual reality would make any dream a reality (not to mention spawning murderous Lawnmower Men). In a way, the Mannahatta Project’s map allows us to exist in a similar utopia — after all, visible nowhere in one’s explorations of the island is a single New Jersey license plate.
No wonder the Dutch bought it.
Philip Bump is a technology and communications consultant in New York City who will be writing an occassional column for Mediaite about the intersection of history and the Internet called “The Wayback Machine.” Follow him on Twitter here.
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