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by Erik Baard 

 

One of the most beautiful contrasts in New York Harbor is that of the verdant tip of Roosevelt Island against the sheen of Manhattan’s glass towers. That is in danger of being replaced with what might be described as a $40 million, concrete press-on nail for the island.

 

The sterile, largely paved and walled Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial and Four Freedoms Park designed by Louis I. Kahn would run counter to our city’s progress toward reconciliation with the estuary, restoration of both marine and uplands habitats, and recreational enjoyment of the harbor. One look at the model in the image at top reveals the travesty awaiting the island, one that ends in what is literally a high-walled room.

 

he future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 The future FDR Memorial, as designed by Louis I. Kahn, as it will look in a new Southpoint Park (rendering from the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute).

 

It’s a shame when quite easily the form of the memorial can be reinterpreted through natural forms and materials. The southern point of the island, in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo below, doesn’t need much improvement.

 

Roosevelt Island by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Imagine that key elements of the Kahn design were expressed through natural forms and materials.

 

Native NYC bedrock quarried from construction and tunneling to pave necessary walkways and be incorporated into the monument itself. This would better respect the environment and ground visitors in ubiety. Bedrock would also symbolize the role that the Roosevelt family has played in our city’s culture and civics. Excerpts of the “Four Freedoms” speech could be engraved into inclined slabs that allow viewers to read the immortal quotations while exhilarated by the wide open freedom of the openness around them. It would be sadly ironic to have the Four Freedoms speech carved into confining walls, especially in our overly-imprisoned era.

 

The V-shaped colonnade of trees should be indigenous. This stand could edge the existing landfill hillock, which should be made rich in indigenous meadow wildflowers and grasses. According to the Audubon Society, wild meadow is vanishing without the attention given wetlands. A soft edge, guarded by thoughtfully placed riprap rock would allow harbor birds, tidal pool creatures, and saltwater plants to live. It would also offer safe landings to paddlers in distress.

 

A bit over a week ago I spoke with a prominent young Roosevelt and asked, half in jest, if one could still love the family without loving the memorial. After teasing me about the “one” pronoun deflection, he reassuringly said, “we all love green.”

 

Regardless of the final form of the park, stopping the outdated version of this monument is a goal that people throughout the harbor community should share with the residents of Roosevelt Island, who have expressed their overwhelming preference for a natural restoration for the southern end of the island in repeated polls and a design exercise by the Trust for Public Land.

 

Yet the project boasts mystifying institutional backing – the New York Times editorial department, and local politicians at city, state, and federal levels. Sentiment in some circles of the architectural profession runs in favor of the plan, perhaps because of the biography of the architect behind it. Louis Kahn died in a Pennsylvania Station bathroom in 1974, ending his life deeply in debt and without this vision realized. But it’s incalculably important to bear in mind the dawn that was concurrent with his death: the national Clean Water Act of 1973 stated “wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.”

 

We missed that goal by a decade in NYC, but our increasingly cleaner harbor and resurging ecosystems will afford adventure and beautiful experiences to people for decades to come. Yes, honor Kahn’s life story and work, but also honor the biographies yet to be written. Let children on Roosevelt Island (thousands more of whom are being added with dense, large-scale development) walk out their doors and into a soul-fortifying relationship with nature. Great Egrets have found nearby Long Island City and Mill Rock Island, so why not invite them to Roosevelt Island?

 

Roosevelt Island is full of paddlers and rowers eager to hit the water, and plans for a boathouse are afoot. A hardscape doesn’t fit the new desire for a landscape that invites residents and visitors alike into uplifting green and blue.

 

“It’s called an FDR memorial but it really seems to be a Louis Kahn memorial,” said a Roosevelt Island resident kayaker who asked not to be identified. “It looks like a Soviet era, Eastern European thing. It will impede the views of the UN and surroundings. The focus should be on looking out, not looking in.”

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Northern Dusky salamander in leaf litter. Photo by Sarah Goodyear.

Editor’s note: We are thrilled that National Public Radio featured Nature Calendar’s quest for the Manhattan population of Northern Dusky salamanders (well camouflaged in leaf litter above) as part of its Earth Day coverage. Check out the online story produced by NPR’s hot new show The Bryant Park Project:

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89830807

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by Erik Baard

Amphibians serve as a bellwether for ecosystems ranging from tropical rainforests to temperate woodlands, and the news is rarely good. The Global Amphibian Assessment of 2004 found that we may have lost 120 species since the 1980s. Another 32% of remaining species are threatened with extinction, and 43% are suffering population declines. That’s an environmental body blow when you consider that salamanders alone are the largest contributor to vertebrate biomass in many North American forests. Part of this crisis seems traceable to global causes like climate change and ozone depletion. More often the problems are tied to local pollutants and habitat fragmentation.

Yet we bring you a quietly happy story of survival in, of all places, Manhattan.

Back in 1944, a 21-year old German immigrant naturalist named Carl Gans noted the presence of dusky salamanders living on a muddy slope in northern Manhattan. They prefer areas with limestone and need copious water, but only if it’s very slow flowing and not laden with silt. Weed-choked streams and bogs are good habitats. Seepages, that is gradually inclining hillsides where water saturates a broad swath of soft earth, are also places where a dusky salamander seeker might find quarry under rotting logs, leaf litter, and some loose stones. This common species is often known as the “pit bull of salamanders” for its stocky body and large jaw. Like many salamanders, they lack lungs and so breathe through their moist, delicate and permeable skin when they outgrow their newborn gills.

The duskies were probably a fun find for Gans, but he quickly moved on to adventures with sharks and exotic reptiles in a stellar, globetrotting career researching biomechanics and evolution. New York City had big ideas too. Over the next six tumultuous decades we built highways and iconic skyscrapers, birthed punk rock and hiphop, and rode waves of crime and condos with equal gusto.

Rough stuff for salamanders. Nearby pavement can accelerate water flow and sweep away salamanders, their young, and the small insects and worms they eat. Pesticides and herbicides cause mutations, behavioral aberrations, or outright kill them. Hydrocarbons and salts running off roads poison them. Clear cutting trees and shrubs denies them the protective shade they require. Urbanization finds a thousand ways to do them in. Even the gentler suburb of Westchester County saw its dusky salamanders nearly vanish in the latter twentieth century. The Manhattan area of the salamanders’ habitat became known for prostitution and illegal dumping, including many stripped cars (since cleared).

Despite the odds, Ellen Pehek, senior ecologist with the Natural Resources Group of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, led a little expedition alongside the Harlem River Drive to revisit the site. Astonishingly, the salamanders were still there.

“That was quite a find. I think people assumed they were gone, but they just hadn’t gone back to check on them,” Pehek said. “The lesson here is that we can protect them without giving up recreational activities. We can plan around these habitats to avoid certain places and all coexist. If they can live in Manhattan, we know we can coexist.”

Pehek was kind enough to share the location of this rare habitat with me – not that it was easy to find, even with directions. “Landmarks” included puddles and hillsides that looked alike to someone out for a casual stroll. To protect this special place, Pehek asked that I not reveal it here. But she encourages readers to visit the duskies in the Staten Island Greenbelt (check out the June 1 “Amphibian Adventures” program!), where they are plentiful.

I invited my old friend, Laura Conaway, and her wife, Sarah Goodyear (whose photos you’re enjoying – click to enlarge), on a salamander safari. Also joining were Laura and Sarah’s son, Nate, and Laura’s brother, Brian. Both Laura and Sarah are writers, and I got to know Laura when she edited a number of my Village Voice stories. She’s now a web editor with The Bryant Park Project at National Public Radio.

After a few wrong turns on my bike and direction checks by cell phone with the very-patient Pehek, we met up and walked the edge of a wood, never leaving the sounds of traffic and Latin music far behind. A small pack of sad-faced stray dogs slowly wound their way single-file up through hillside outcroppings in single file while Northern Flicker woodpeckers busy on fallen logs below. Baseballs were oddly placed in the crotches of locust, dogwood, and oak branches. Glass was ubiquitous. Some boulders were cracked and slivered; tell-tale bullet shell casings lay beneath them.

We turned over logs as we went. Millipedes here, pillbugs (aka rolly pollies) there, but no salamanders. I was starting to feel foolish. Laura continued to record, I continued to stall.

Finally, Brian exclaimed, “Found one!” From that point on, we found duskies and more common redback salamanders under every log in a small area. No wonder Pehek was so cautious about protecting the duskies’ coordinates: on the entire island of Manhattan, this species’ habitat can be measured in yards.

The salamanders were still when held, but quite fleet of foot on the ground. They have very muscular hind legs, which are a distinguishing characteristic second in prominence only to their muddy, dark gray-brown camouflage pigmentation. They are known to be excellent leapers. Subtler differences include a pale line from the eye to the corner of the mouth and an immobile jaw – they lift their heads to open their mouths.

The duskies felt cool in my palm (they don’t grow larger than five inches) for the few seconds I held them before I returning them to the wet ground, lest their skin dry.

Not so camouflaged now. Photo by Sarah Goodyear

“Most salamanders like the cold. You think of cold-blooded creatures liking warmth, but they can’t handle the heat. They sort of almost pass out from your skin warmth. They’re not something you want to handle for long,” Pehek cautioned. “They need to recover in moist leaf litter or a cold stream.”

In a few weeks they’ll begin courtship, an involved affair that includes head stroking, “butterfly” forelimb movements, and tail straddling. Then the grape-like egg clusters will develop in the mud during the height of summer. By the season’s end, yellow-spotted, gilled juveniles will be scurrying about. As they mature, the spots fade and the gills are subsumed. Salamanders don’t travel far in their several years of life, hugging the same muddy spring or stream bank.

That doesn’t mean they’re equally easy to find year-round. “They like a somewhat steady temperature, so when it’s too cold they’ll burrow down and do their thing there” in the warm earth, Pehek said. “In the middle of summer, when it gets too dry, they’ll also go under ground.”

A good strategy to catch them in action, Pehek advised, is to go to their haunts after sunset with a headlamp or flashlight. “At night they’ll climb around flowering plants and shrubs looking for invertebrates to eat.”

But don’t interrupt their feeding for too long – it’s important work. “They eat the insects that break down the leaf litter, so salamanders are slowing that decay. There’s carbon sequestered in those leaves, so in a way you could say salamanders are slowing down global warming,” Pehek said.

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