Manhattan is Built on Landfills

by Daniel R. Lewis

Take a walk along the Hudson River through Battery Park City and up 13th Avenue. You’ll see apartments, offices, warehouses and parks, not to mention the traffic up and down the West Side Highway. It’s also all built on garbage.

Almost since the first European colonists arrived and began to build a settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan Island, New Yorkers have dealt with two problems: lots of garbage and needing more space. At first, garbage was tossed over the city walls to the north, or simply thrown into the nearby rivers. Out of sight, out of mind. But as the city’s population grew, so did the amount of trash beyond the walls. With more trash comes more disease and soon enough New York had its first sanitation crisis on its hands.

“Experts in landscape architecture, sanitary movement and engineering came together for public health reasons to try to reshape the city,” said Steven Moga, a fellow at the New-York Historical Society. “Most of the infrastructure that supports life in New York City today dates back to that period and those building decisions were very closely intertwined with filling land.”

When the city’s original reservoir, a pond called the Collect, became too polluted by waste from nearby breweries and tanneries, the city decided to just fill it. They piled trash and earth into the pond and built a canal to drain the Collect into the East River. The waterway was itself filled in to create a new road: Canal Street. These days, all that’s left of the pastoral pond is a small park on the corner of Lafayette Avenue and Leonard Street.

Manhattan has continued to grow along with its population. The most recent addition to the island was Battery Park City, built on top of landfill and waste from the construction of the original World Trade Center in 1973. But it took years to develop, leaving New York with a rarity: wide, open space in lower Manhattan.

“There was a period when development just halted,” said Lilly Tuttle, an assistant curator at the Museum of the City of New York. “In the meantime there was a beach there, a vast tract of unused land that was used for performances and public art.”

Green space and public art has since given way to luxury developments in Battery Park City, but there’s more to the story of how Manhattan grew on top of garbage in the interactive feature below.

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