Did you know that when Henry Hudson first arrived on the shores of New York Habor in 1609, he encountered 220,000 acres of oyster beds–nearly half the oyster population of the entire world! In recent years, however, that number had almost entirely diminished, which is where the Billion Oyster Project came in. Since 2014, they’ve been working to restore oyster reefs to the harbor with the goal of adding one billion oysters by 2035. Their work hasn’t stopped during COVID, and this year, the nonprofit’s annual party is going virtual. Next Thursday, join the Billion Oyster Party for a shucking lesson (don’t worry, you’ll get your mollusks in the mail!), food demonstrations, timely discussions, and more.
Ruffle Bar via Frogma
Today, when most New Yorkers think of oysters it has to do with the latest happy hour offering the underwater delicacies for $1, but back in the 19th century oysters were big business in New York City, as residents ate about a million a year. In fact, oyster reefs once covered more than 220,000 acres of the Hudson River estuary and it was estimated that the New York Harbor was home to half of the world’s oysters. Not only were they tasty treats, but they filtered water and provided shelter for other marine species. They were sold from street carts as well as restaurants, and even the poorest New Yorkers enjoyed them regularly.
Though we know the shores of Manhattan, especially along today’s Meatpacking District and in the Financial District near aptly named Pearl Street, were chock full of oysters, there were also a couple of islands that played a part in New York’s oyster culture, namely Ruffle Bar, a sandbar in Jamaica Bay, and Robbins Reef, a reef off Staten Island marked with a lighthouse.
Why is it called the Meatpacking District when there are only six meat packers there, down from about 250? Inertia, most likely. The area has seen so many different uses over time, and they’re so often mercantile ones that Gansevoort Market would probably be a better name for it.
Located on the shore of the Hudson River, it’s a relatively small district in Manhattan stretching from Gansevoort Street at the foot of the High Line north to and including West 14th Street and from the river three blocks east to Hudson Street. Until its recent life as a go-to high fashion mecca, it was for almost 150 years a working market: dirty, gritty, and blood-stained.
Image courtesy of SCAPE / LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE PLLC
We know what you’re thinking: what is oyster-tecture, anyway? Just ask Kate Orff, landscape architect and the founding principal of SCAPE Studio. SCAPE is a landscape architecture and urban design office based in Manhattan and specializing in urban ecology, site design, and strategic planning. Kate is also an associate professor of architecture and urban design at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she founded the Urban Landscape Lab, which is dedicated to affecting positive social and ecological change in the joint built-natural environment.
But the Living Breakwaters project may be the SCAPE team’s most impactful yet. The “Oyster-tecture” concept was developed as part of the MoMA Rising Currents Exhibition in 2010, with the idea of an oyster hatchery/eco-park in the Gowanus interior that would eventually generate a wave-attenuating reef in the Gowanus Bay. Describing the project as, “a process for generating new cultural and environmental narratives,” Kate envisioned a new “reef culture” functioning both as ecological sanctuary and public recreation space.