A Reader Responds

A Reader Responds . . .

Front cover of The Urban Naturalist by Steven D. Garber

I reviewed a book, The Urban Naturalist by Steven D. Garber, in February of this year. This week, I received a letter from a reader (as I occasionally do), but this time the author was the author. Dr. Garber went in depth to describe the lasting impact of his pioneering book, which provided some points of interest to me and perhaps other readers of Wildflowers of the West Village. Here is his feedback in his own words . . .

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From: Steven D. Garber, MBA & PhD
Worldwide Ecology
P.O. Box 3502
Stamford, CT 06905

This is almost the 25th anniversary of ‘The Urban Naturalist’ a groundbreaking book about urban ecosystems, and especially about New York City’s ecosystem. I thought you might be interested in more background.
Not too long ago I read an article in the New York Times that said High Line happened when instead of tearing down “the elevated freight tracks that cut through the West Side of Manhattan,” they were preserved and turned into a park.
Here’s how the High Line started. In hundreds of speeches, interviews and articles I took every opportunity to get the idea out there, that that old highway could and should be turned into a park. For this to happen, NYC couldn’t tear the old highway down. When I couldn’t get Mayor Koch to support the idea, I persuaded the next mayoral candidate David Dinkins, not to tear it down and to support the idea of a park there in exchange for support the support that I delivered him with the endorsement of New York City’s Sierra Club.
After Dinkins, I continued working with mayoral candidate Rudolph Giuliani. I wrote Giuliani’s environmental platform and got him to support the idea. He said all the right things, but did little more than stop plans to tear the elevated Westside Highway down. He was swayed by the developers who wanted to build on that land. I spoke with Donald Trump and convinced him how important it was to make the shoreline he owned on Manhattan’s West Side accessible to the City.
After Mayor Giuliani was replaced, Mayor Michael Bloomberg allowed the idea to finally take hold, money was allocated, and the park became official. The New York Times said this park survived “so many moneyed interests [that] were united against saving the elevated freight tracks,” and finally what I modestly admit was a brilliant idea, after years of fighting, this vision came into fruition.
In front of cameras and microphones, Mayor Bloomberg has said, “preserving the High Line [elevated Westside Highway Park] as a public park revitalized a swath of the city and generated $2 billion in private investment surrounding the park. The mayor pointed to the deluxe apartment buildings whose glass walls press up against the High Line and the hundreds of art galleries, restaurants and boutiques it overlooks.”
“All of that commerce more than makes up for the $115 million the city has spent on the park and the deals it has made to encourage developers to build along the High Line without blocking out the sun, Mr. Bloomberg said. On top of the 8,000 construction jobs those projects required, the redevelopment has added about 12,000 jobs in the area, the mayor said.”
“Indeed, what started out as a community-based campaign to convert an eyesore into an asset evolved into one of the most successful economic-development projects of the mayor’s nine years in office.”
Robert Hammond, said he thought the park “would be good for the local economy” but “we had no idea that it would happen this fast.” To Mr. Hammond, it seemed like the park happened fast. For me, it took decades to make this park happen and I see no reason to be shy about this, since the park would never have happened without my vision, my work, and my behind the scenes politicking.
What I started is hailed as brilliant and visionary. Here’s proof I was there right from the start.
In 1987, Marion Belcher wrote an article in the Clinton Community Press about my work. This was when the concept of urban ecology did not exist. People thought ecological processes only happened in the wild. That places where people lived didn’t really count. Now, books are written about urban ecology, entire journals are devoted to urban ecology, PhD programs, university departments, and the list goes on and on.
Back then urban ecology was a non-sequitur. Even biologists laughed at what I was writing. But time proved me right.
Ms. Belcher wrote: “The species is rare: an urban ecologist. It seems a contradiction in terms. Steven Garber… is not only an urban ecologist, but also the author of ‘The Urban Naturalist,’ which is receiving rave reviews and has rapidly become a best-selling science edition. Garber has written a wonderful and casual book about plants and animals [and] ‘The Urban Naturalist’ did indeed delight this reader and continues to do so.”
“The natural place to meet Mr. Garber was on his own turf: out-of-doors. ‘Do you want to go to Central Park or somewhere real?’, came Garber’s crisp response. We didn’t have to go far, and somewhere real turned out to be the unused, elevated section of the West Side Highway… Once there, as if by magic, we seemed suddenly transported far from the city. The din of traffic is silenced by the wind off the Hudson. Seagulls glide past where nature has taken over the macadam and cobblestones that man chose to abandon. It is a tranquil, beautiful spot… where one can partake of a view which encompasses Midtown [and] the Hudson as far north as the George Washington Bridge.”
“Garber is the perfect guide to point out the astonishing variety of plant life thriving there. Cottonwood trees have seeded in along the crevices on the side of the old highway. A quaking aspen has taken root as well. ‘We think of quaking aspen as only growing in the Rocky Mountains, but it is also common throughout the Northeast and Canada,’ states Garber. Seaside goldenrod flourishes and is now blooming, as is thoroughwort, a tall bushy plant covered with silvery white blossoms. Asters, evening primrose, mosses… Lofty phragmites have sprouted and other edible species such as lady’s thumb and lamb’s quarters. The list goes on.”
This area “has never had anything approaching a major park. Mr. Garber wants to see this abandoned highway turned into one. As a long time resident of the community, as well as a biologist with a keen eye for aesthetics, he sees tremendous potential for enhancing the natural environment. This elevated highway could return some of the coastline’s lost beauty if it were made into a park or promenade.”
Mr. Garber explains, “When Central Park was in the planning stages, developers fought the concept. They viewed all of Manhattan Island as a park which at the time was surrounded by wooden piers, salt marshes and inlets. Since that time the coastline has gradually been ruined. The residents of [Manhattan who] live right on the Hudson… can’t enjoy it.”
“‘The New York City Planning Commission wants to revitalize the West Side,’ poses Mr. Garber. ‘This neglected stretch of highway is perfect for a promenade. With a minimal investment we could create a resource for all of New York City. This promenade could extend… all the way to Riverside Park, via Donald Trump’s stretch of [then still] undeveloped breachfront property. For this to happen the Mayor, the Parks Commissioner, the Planning Commission, Donald Trump, and the community would all have to reach some accord.’ Mr. Garber pauses to take in the view. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful.’”
“In ‘The Urban Naturalist’ Mr. Garber writes, ‘Just as oceans and forests and prairies are natural environments, cities and suburbs are also natural. We city inhabitants are animals who affect our surroundings like any other creature, however most creatures do not destroy their environment. Economic principles alone are not enough. To revitalize the quality of an urban ecosystem, it is imperative that we work with natural processes and ecological principles.’”
“Heading home, I feel like I spent the afternoon in the country, though I never left the… area; and I have a better appreciation for what Steve Garber means by ‘somewhere real.’ To quote Henry Stern, our [then] Parks Commissioner, from his forward to ‘The Urban Naturalist,’ ‘Preserving and improving our wild areas in New York City will provide an uplift for all of us. We’ve been neglecting the outdoor aspects of our sustenance. Without nature we are deprived–and New Yorkers don’t like being deprived of anything’” (Marion Belcher. Clinton’s Urban Naturalist. Clinton Community Press. Pages 3 and 5).
I’m glad I’ve devoted my life to helping the natural world and to showing how nature is changing. It’s important to teach and preserve the history of nature.

Steven D. Garber, PhD

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It is a good feeling to know one’s blog is reaching its target audience, even better when one of its subjects takes the time to reply in depth. For more information regarding The Urban Naturalist, read the original post by following this link: https://wildflowersofthewestvillage.com/2011/02/25/the-urban-naturalist/

– rPs 11 19 2011

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