josh (joshc) wrote,

historical fictional geography

Reading about the Mannahatta Project in the New Yorker (article not online, but some accessory materials are [#]) in the midst of reading Spook Country [$], and I couldn't help thinking that the efforts to visualize what the island of Manhattan looked like in 1609 would make a great piece of the "locative art" described in the book.

How cool would it be to don a VR headset and have this sort of scenery overlaid on a drive through the city?
... we drove down Fifth Avenue, along the edge of what used to be hilly, boggy wilderness, the intransigence of which helped preserve it long enough for it to be viable as a park (although it gave the Park's landscapers fits). Likewise, the other parks, to the north--such as Morningside, Fort Tryon, and Mount Morris--are on land too steep and rocky to be easily developed. We emerged into the blinding mayhem of midtown, parked in a garage on West Forty-eighth Street, and walked down a block to the Diamond District, into what was once a pond-pocked hemlock forest. Five blocks to our south, on the ridge of Murray Hill, there had been stands of white pine, ten to fifteen stories tall--which, ideal for ships' masts, were doomed, well before any Coliseum Books could sprout up, and then close, in their place. --- "the Mannahatta Project", Nick Paumgarten (1 October 2007, the New Yorker)

This reminds me of the Elevator Repair Company's excellent production of Gatz, a word-for-word performance of the Great Gatsby that I saw last month. Watching it, I realized how much of the novel outside of the major plot points I'd forgotten. In particular, my memory of the story ends dramatically at the swimming pool, but it turns out that there is a whole lot more (or at least it felt that way as the play stretched into its seventh hour). Specifically, in the closing paragraphs, there's Nick's beachfront rumination about the island's past that seems rather in line with the Wildlife Conservation Society's work:
And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes--a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder. --- the Great Gatsby [gutenberg]
From Paumgarten's article, however, I suspect that Fitzgerald may have overestimated the sailors' initial interest upon their first encounters of the island.

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