An Island No More

“Plug up the Hudson river at both ends of Manhattan… divert that body of water into the Harlem river so that it might flow out into the East river and down to the Atlantic ocean… pump out the water from the area of the Hudson which has been dammed off… fill in that space… ultimately connecting the Island of Manhattan with the mainland of New Jersey… and you have the world’s eighth wonder – the reconstruction of Manhattan!”

No, it’s not Pruned‘s Alex Trevi talking in his sleep; it’s an old jewel of an urban plan by Norman Sper, re-discovered several months ago by Modern Mechanix.

Sper intended for the Hudson in-fill “to solve New York City’s traffic and housing problems, which are threatening to devour the city’s civilization like a Frankenstein monster” – and this was in 1934.

Manhattan would thus no longer be an island.

But Sper’s ideas went “still further. No use waiting, he says, until the entire area is filled in before starting underground improvements. Build your tunnels, conduits, mail and automobile tubes, and other subterranean passages indispensable to comfort in the biggest city in the universe as you go along. Do it in the process of filling the basin left by the drawing off of the water.”

Quoting at length:

“When every possible subterranean necessity had been anticipated and built,” Sper points out, “a secondary fill would bring the level up to within twenty-five feet of the Manhattan street level. Upon this level would rest the foundations and basements of the buildings that would make up the new city above, planned for fresh air, sunshine and beauty. Thus, below the street level would be a subterranean system of streets that would serve a double purpose. All heavy trucking would be confined to it, but primarily it would serve as a great military defense against gas attack in case of war, for in it would be room for practically the entire population of the city. If the Russians had the vision and the courage not only to build huge cities from the ground up, but to practically rebuild an empire, surely America should not be frightened at a project as big as this.”

The rest of the article – available at Modern Mechanix – is hilariously earnest and worth a quick read.

(Via designboom and Coudal).

11 thoughts on “An Island No More”

  1. Well Manhattan did have a significantly larger population back then, so the traffic and population threats were more acute in 1934 than now. But why the Hudson? Who wants to connect to NJ? Why not fill in the East River, it’s not even a real river anyway…

  2. I can think of three reasons favouring the Hudson over the east River. One, the Hudson is wider, meaning more terrain for building. Two, who’d want to be connected to Long Island? For that matter, what authentic New Yorker would even consent to bonding with Yonkers? New Yorkers revel in disdain, and probably need to be boxed in by, but just over the river from people and places that nobody in his right mind would dream of inhabiting. In that regard, being connected to New Jersey is just one of three possible evils.

    Last, but not least, damming the Hudson would clean out the East River, scouring it from bank to bank. This might be a good thing. Especially if they can do it with an accompanying great Whooshing noise. Wouldn’t it be cool to back up the river for a few days, then pull the plug and let it drain like a bathtub? Imagine the sonic extravagance of it! Never mind Villa d’Este and the others, New York as a garden of surprises, powered by the mighty Hudson (and the newly-refurbished subterranean pipeworks) would put Old Faithful and Yosemite to the test. Never mind the roar of Niagara. New York water gardens would provide a regular performance of slurping sounds more excessive than Yellowstone mudpots, gurgling and sucking whirlpools of sound as drive-time accompaniment, and a festival of that which formed and framed Manhattan’s destiny: water all around.

    Of course, the real reason for damming the river and building on it is so that the new neighbourhoods, a few feet below sea level, can be collectively known as Nieuw… .

  3. Wonderful post reminiscent of Willy Ley’s /Engineers’ Dreams/ which includes, among other things, a nice plan for submerging central Africa ( But the really nice
    part of this post is the website to which it refers, and the wealth of great articles, particularly this one:
    the image of which is pure BLDGBLOG and deserves its own post (“Stonehenge Aerodrome ” though it would need two small dwarfs dancing nearby for full effect.)

  4. Sounds a little like the Atlantropa concept…

    …by Herman Sörgel. “Its central feature was a hydroelectric dam to be built across the Strait of Gibraltar, and the lowering of the surface of the Mediterranean Sea by as much as 200 metres.”

    The Science Channel had a great documentary on the subject, with the German architect’s struggle to get interest as WW2 started up.

    Come to find out, scientist think that damning the Mediterranean would have cooled the Atlantic and thus Europe. It would be interesting to see if there were any consiquences like that with the NYC project.

  5. While it’s not the same scale of river as the Hudson, the city of Valencia, Spain, diverted the Turia River away from its core city (to mitigate chronic flooding) in the 1960s or 1970s, and routed it around its western and southern suburbs. Then the city turned the dry riverbed into a continuous series of public spaces, museums, sports fields, and parks, including a great childrens’ park with a giant Gulliver play structure (visible from google earth). I highly recommend spending a couple of minutes at or, better yet,, tracing the path of the old riverbed.

    It may make the environmentalist in me twitch; but the part of me interested in improving urban spaces (civic environmentalist?) thinks it’s very cool.

  6. dividedsocieties – That’s a great airport plan; thanks for pointing it out! I’ll have to put that up sometime. Too bad the entire island can’t be made to rotate in place like that…

    And all the other comments are great, too – I would add that using the newly resurgent East River as a hydraulic power source for some kind of intricately multi-leveled city-machine built on the east coast of Manhattan would be a great way to use the added water volume. Powering elevators, cranes, sculpture gardens, subways – hydraulic platforms moving whole buildings up and down throughout the day. Your view changes. An animated skyline. e-tat’s sound garden of aquatic flushing, channeled through a maze of hydrological office parks.

    Or construct a whole series of travertine dams in the East River and host surfing contests, white water, obstacled rowing courses…

  7. interesting as always.

    i thought that manhattan is technically not an island. it is part of a fjord within an archipelago. no?

  8. I love this quote from the article:

    Engineers uniformly agree that there are very few problems which can successfully defy the determination of civilization to conquer.

    I’d say that Hurricane Katrina was a problem that defied the determination of civilization.

  9. Got a new question. This is Manhattan we’re talking about; the place framed by the gravitas of clashing civilisations. You know the one. So are we running a risk of being labelled as anti-New Yorkers, pace people critical of foreign policy being labelled as anti-USmerican?

    (As an aside, remember back in the day, before ‘I heart NY’, when the national debate was whether to let the city go bankrupt, and anti-New York sentiment was broadly a code word for anti-urban?)

    Put another way, what other city is as subject to fantasies of grand restructurings? Is there one city, above all, that serves as a template for our imaginative reworkings? Is it Rome? Paris? Moscow? Kuala Lumpur? Los Angeles? Houston? Rio de Janeiro? Canberra?

    So, is New York the default subject for alterations, mutations and experimentations? Is that its legacy?

    That said, I propose we use Geoff’s hyraulics to lift Manhattan off the bedrock, like a barber chair. Then, given the blade-like shape, spin it round on the pivot, fast enough to maintain some sort of lift, while letting the river form, oh , a whirlpool! underneath.

  10. The Chicago River was reversed in its course; it now flows backward away from the lake because of engineering.

  11. So, it's 1934 and New Yorkers should model themselves on what the Russians have done? They could certainly start with a couple of purges and maybe the intentional starvation of New Jersey.

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