Discover more from Honor Vincent
New York City, 2083
New Rat City Part 2 is here! Get the whole series in two double issues on Kickstarter
🎉 The New Rat City Kickstarter for the complete series just launched! 🎉
You can pick up the whole series, plus some extra goodies (jewels! rats! artwork!) here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/honorvincent/new-rat-city-parts-1-and-2
If you want to hear more about the book’s origin story, scuttle on down below the line break…
My husband and I moved to Roosevelt Island last summer. If you’re unfamiliar with the place, it’s a 2-mile-long spit in the middle of the East River, in between Manhattan and Astoria. Most people I talk to about it haven’t visited — it’s one of those places that seems like a pain to get to. But there’s a subway stop, a ferry landing, a bridge for cars, and you can take the little red tram that Spider-man saved from plunging into the river (it’s generally not that exciting, though I do recommend riding it at least once).
When my parents first came to visit us, we took a walk along the river. My dad remarked on how clean the East River was. “It used to look like you could walk across it,” he said. “Yeah, you smell like the East River used to be a real insult,” my mother added. They grew up in Queens in the 60s and 70s, and the city was indeed much dirtier then. I’ve never in my life seen smog like this:
Those photos were taken in the 1970s, as part of the newly-formed EPA’s Documerica project.1 They wanted to capture ‘subjects of environmental concern,’ and during the ‘70s they took tens of thousands of photos of the country. Smog wasn’t the only issue in the city, either (though in 1966 there was a smog so bad it was considered an environmental disaster): there was water pollution from cars dumped in Jamaica Bay, oil spills in New York Harbor, and raw sewage being dumped into the East River.
These are the kinds of images that most often come to mind if you ask a random person to describe the environmental vibe of a city: pollution, grime, grit. Few animals, fewer cute ones. The most built-up areas of cities are bulwarks against nature, they’re designed to keep it within designated bounds.2 Taking the long view, this is a losing battle.
Over the past couple of generations we’ve cleaned things up, and the city is certainly more livable than it was in 1970. In college we took a trip to Jamaica Bay and put on waders to do a survey of wildlife (no wild cars, smelled fine, many clams counted). As I take my daily walk I look mostly at the ground and the river, where the sparrows and pigeons and ducks and cormorants and starlings and seagulls and squirrels are. And when I look up, it looks like this:
So the immediate environment is nicer now! But our environmental concerns have gotten much bigger and much smaller over the last 50 years: it’s microplastics in our guts now, not six-pack rings around birds’ necks. There aren’t cars being dumped into the bay, but the entire ocean is swelling around the parts of Manhattan that have been built out into the river. These are worse problems, and they’re far less visible.
If the city is getting better on the outside but creakier in its bones, what version of New York might my hypothetical grandchild see3? One that was wilder, maybe — less populated, with the concrete of Broadway ripped up in favor of sawgrass. It would be soggier, too, mostly empty due to flooding, with any higher elevation neighborhoods behind seawalls. The rats and pigeons we have here now would stay, I think, and fill in the empty spaces. Perhaps in the future we’d have strict animal rights laws, so we’d have to go through some contortions to keep the city a bulwark for people. But what if we fail, and the pendulum swings back to where it was before the 1600s, when this area was as lush and biodiverse as Yellowstone or Yosemite4?
Anyway! That’s the little gyre of anxieties New Rat City came from. If you’d like to visit 2083 New York City to see it for yourself, you can pick up the series here!
In that sense pest controllers are very much like cities: they’re here to block natural incursions for human comfort and convenience.
As a New Yorker, I refuse to believe there won’t be some kind of city here one day, so there.
So say the authors of “Mannahatta: a Natural History of New York City” a great book about the natural history of the city pre-colonization.