I've been coveting Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City since it was a gleam in its publisher's eye, and my roommate serendipitously got his hands on a copy as soon as it was released this May. It's a beautiful book, filled with re-imagined maps of New York before the arrival of the Dutch, and peppered with primary documents and paintings of Manhattan flora and fauna that bring home the fact that this city was once much more untamed than modern New Yorkers like to think it is today.
I thought I'd had my fill of city history for at least a month or two, but I just stumbled upon the website of the Mannahatta Project, the organization behind the book on my coffee table. Ye gods, there is so much more of New York to explore. Take the interactive map, basically a Google satellite map on which users can transition between 1609 (the date of Hudson's discovery of Manhattan) and today to pinpoint the location of a city block and learn about its onetime ecology and Indian inhabitants. For instance, my first New York apartment, on Fifth Avenue at 109th Street, used to be a hilly landscape covered in oak trees, amongst which Lenape tribesman (coming from a village a little under half a mile away) hunted for black bears and wild turkeys and foraged for bayberries and huckleberries. Hell. Yeah.
To fill in the interceding years, I fell back on the New Netherlands Institute, which offers some great, quickfire history about the early colony that sprung up on Manhattan after Henry Hudson's first visit. Dutch control of the island ended in 1664, but the NNI occasionally ventures past that; for instance, I just learned that Peter Stuyvesant owned an enormous farm on the site of what is now Stuy Town (go figure), and that the Bowery (named after bouwerij, the Dutch word for "farm") is the original path that connected his estate to the town of New Amsterdam. Also, he's buried in a crypt beneath St. Mark's Church-on-the-Bowery in the East Village. I'm totally taking a lunchtime walk one of these days to pay Old Peg Leg a visit.