Ted Steinberg at Dissent:
New York has a long history of thumbing its nose at the sea. The Dutch colonists took some of the initial steps to wade out into the water—building a pier, for example—but it was the British who followed them who transformed underwater land into a commodity. This move formed the basis for the physical expansion of the island of Manhattan. Back in the 1600s, the lower part of the island ended at what is now Pearl Street, a couple of blocks inland from where it ends today. But grants to underwater land, made by the Crown and then the state of New York, expanded the city’s underwater real estate. By 2010 such expansion had added 2,286 acres—the equivalent of more than 1,700 football fields of land—to the island.
The process of encroaching on the sea, which began at the tip of Manhattan, was then replicated in other places around New York Harbor, including Brooklyn and Queens and, across the Hudson River, in Jersey City and Hoboken. Indeed, before massive landfilling operations in the 1800s, Hoboken was an island community, and Jersey City little more than a spit of land connected to the mainland at low tide by a soggy marsh.
As New York rose to become the nation’s largest city—a position it has retained for some 200 years—it continued to grow at the expense of its surrounding waters. The rise of the city’s red-hot real estate market in the latter part of the 1800s, meanwhile, helped to underwrite the idea of New York City as a limitless proposition.