Thursday, October 28, 2010

Marble Hill in Manhattan (not the Bronx)

I recently discovered* Pathological Geomorphology, where various geobloggers share "images of extreme landscapes, landforms, and processes," organized around a monthly theme. Last month was dedicated to landslides, for instance. This month: "the juxtaposition (or superposition) of distinctly human-made landscapes with nature's geomorphic forms."

This immediately reminded me of Marble Hill, a neighborhood in the borough of Manhattan that is physically attached to the Bronx. Here's an aerial view - to orient you, this is the Harlem River ship canal where it curves around the northern tip of Manhattan. A small corner of the Hudson River is in the upper-left corner, and Broadway, and the West Side IRT subway lines, run diagonally from the middle of the bottom edge to the upper right-hand corner:

You can clearly see a looping s-curve through the middle of the picture. It's the old course of the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, which was widened and straightened in the nineteenth century for use as a ship canal between the Harlem and Hudson Rivers. On the left side of the photo is Inwood Hill Park, where I worked as an urban park ranger in 2005. The old creek is still more or less a waterway there, though it's been filled in substantially. The nature center and baseball field at the northeastern entrance of the park (the small peninsula left of center in the photo above) actually used to be connected to the Bronx.

The eastern loop is more interesting. It's been completely filled in - parking lots, warehouses, and big box stores now occupying the former creek bed. But the streets still trace the lines of the historic creek banks. The neighborhood between the new ship canal and the old creek bed is called Marble Hill. It was attached to Manhattan Island until 1895, when the ship canal sliced it off and marooned it as an island. Here's a map from that turn-of-the-century period, via Forgotten New York:

The creek was filled in 1917 to attach Marble Hill to the mainland of the Bronx, but the neighborhood, for political and judicial purposes, remained in New York County, and the borough of Manhattan.

I've heard, anecdotally, that a number of Marble Hill residents still insist on snubbing the borough that surrounds them by telling people they live in Manhattan, which sounds more upscale than the Bronx. So, while the historic geomorphology of the former Spuyten Duyvil Creek does survive to this day in a ghost-pattern of street layouts and land uses, it survives in a more tangible sense in the neighborhood's civic affairs and a general sense of inter-borough snootiness.

Of course, this is probably my best example of how ancient geomorphic forms have influenced human-made landscapes - but I've already written about that one.

*via mammoth, another blog I've discovered and really come to enjoy in the last couple of months - it writes extensively about urban infrastructure and how it relates to our economy and ecologies. If you like this blog, you'll enjoy theirs, too.


Iona said...

hi c neal,

do you ever read Friends of the Pleistocene? They connect geologic/deep time with human activities - my favorite geo blog along with pathological geomorphology.

if you haven't already checked it out:

best, iona.

C Neal said...

I spent a full hour reading their archives this morning. I'm subscribing now. Thanks for the tip, Iona.