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Matthew Gandy. Concrete and Clay: Reworking Nature in New York City. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2002. Pp. xi+344. $34.95

Summary

This book presents itself as an environmental history of New York City. Of the five chapters, the first three focus on public works projects firmly controlled by social and technical elites. The first tells the story of New York's water supply, which reaches hundreds of miles into the Catskill Mountains. The second concerns Central Park, and the third describes how Robert Moses shifted from building landscaped parkways prior to World War II to highways based on an engineered, treeless aesthetic. In each case, Gandy reaches the unsurprising conclusion that New York's rich and powerful have used their power to grow even richer by deploying public monies to enhance property values. While conceding that some investments in infrastructure produced "inestimable benefits to millions of people" (p. 73), for the most part Gandy insists that any benefit to the poor was "anomalous" (p. 37) or "incidental" (p. 105).

The remaining two chapters tell more recent stories of neighborhood groups fighting for environmental justice. One describes the brief emergence [End Page 211] of the Young Lords Party, a Puerto Rican counterpart to the Black Panthers. Even in such a scattershot book, this chapter seems out of place. Gandy terms the Lords environmentalists because they demanded better garbage collection as part of a wide-ranging program, but it is not clear that they thought of themselves as reworking nature. The final chapter, about neighborhood resistance to a proposed waste incinerator, is more closely related to Gandy's environmentalist theme. Yet while he thrills to find cross-ethnic alliances, he acknowledges that the net effect of victory was merely to shift New York waste to poor communities in other states.

Commentary

Zachary Schrag, Spring 2007

Despite its frequent evocations of nature, Concrete and Clay is not what is generally known as an environmental history. William Cronon and Anne Whiston Spirn, among others, have shown that cities are only partially human creations, and that climate, geology, and other species often frustrate human design. Matthew Gandy applauds their work, but he does not follow their lead. In his city, water, trees, and microbes are nothing more than the objects of human control, not independent forces or parts of a larger ecosystem. Animals are absent entirely—this is a New York City without pigeons or cockroaches—and we learn nothing of the life cycle of elms or the composition of soils. There is simply not enough attention to nature's own rhythms to make this an environmental history of New York.

Instead, Gandy has written a lament over the unequal distribution of political power in an American city, one that recalls such works as Sam Bass Warner's Private City and Mike Davis's City of Quartz. Even though each chapter has some connection to the physical environment of New York City, the focus on nature is only incidental, for stories of housing, schooling, or law-enforcement policy would fit just as well into Gandy's framework. Power, not nature, is the true subject of the book.

Since most of the stories told here are familiar to urban historians, and since most of the chapters are based at least as much on recent secondary scholarship as on primary sources, Gandy seems to define his contribution not as new research but as original synthesis and argument. Unfortunately, that argument is generally expressed only in brief and obscure remarks, as when he writes that "the most promising solution to environmental degradation may lie in the development of a more sophisticated public sphere through which new forms of democratic decision making can emerge in preference to any lurch toward the ecological Hobbesianism of greater control, which may prove in any case to be fiscally and ideologically untenable" (p. 74). Missing is a clear statement of how infrastructure development could have been more democratic in the past.

Gandy does try to define his position in reference to the arguments of other writers, but this often results in straw-man attacks against unnamed scholars. When he names an intellectual adversary, it usually turns out to be an architect or planner, rather than a historian. It seems, then, that his real mission is not to tell historians anything they do not already know, but to repackage their work in order to refute the more utopian claims of moon-eyed environmentalists who, according to Gandy, think that anything touching nature is unquestionably good. Perhaps there are such thinkers, and perhaps they will learn from Gandy's insistence that the control of nature has a past, a past that is not always pretty.

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