Interactive

What Did Precolonial Manhattan Sound Like?

An immersive audio experience transports listeners four centuries into the past, when New York was undeveloped and ecologically diverse.

Manhattan in 1609 and 2017, as modeled by Dr. Eric Sanderson and the Wildlife Conservation Society (courtesy Unsung.NYC)

The only water at the former site of Manhattan’s Collect Pond today is an intermittently filled reflecting pool, situated between skyscrapers and noisy traffic. Four centuries ago, bullfrogs, katydids, and crows filled the air with croaks, chirps, and caws, and the body of fresh water was still clean. After being used as a settlement drinking supply, it became polluted and was eventually drained.

Collect Pond Park, located at the current Lafayette and Leonard Streets, is one of four sites featured in “Calling Thunder: The Unsung History of Manhattan.” The newly launched audio initiative transports listeners to 1609, right before Henry Hudson’s voyage to the future New York City, using field recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library. The texture of the noise takes into account hills that are now flattened and other geographic features, building on research in Eric W. Sanderson’s book Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City and his Welikia Project. Like another recent app, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s “Dawn Chorus,” which uses sounds from the Macaulay Library as a bird song alarm clock, Calling Thunder encourages a consideration of conservation.

The soundscapes can be experienced in one long video (narrated by Emily Kron and embedded below), which viewers can navigate in 360 degrees. It features images of the present dissolving into black-and-white sketches of the past. Each location is also available to explore in individual videos and binaural tracks. On the Calling Thunder site, the creators state that interactive mobile and virtual-reality versions are in the works.

“Maybe the issues we are presenting — by comparing what Manhattan used to be to what it is now — can spark people to actually want to do something, not just get information but become involved in trying to figure out how can we find a better balance,” said Bill McQuay, an audio producer at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and co-creator of Calling Thunderin a release. McQuay collaborated on the project with David Al-Ibrahim, a graduate student in the School of Visual Arts’ Interaction Design Program.

According to Cornell, Manhattan once had “more ecological diversity per acre than Yellowstone National Park does today.” Through audio and video, Calling Thunder journeys from Collect Pond to the Hudson River shore where the High Line stands today, resurrecting the sounds of ring-billed gulls and ospreys along the water. Further uptown, voices echoing in the rotunda of the American Museum of Natural History vanish into warbles of black-capped chickadees and green frogs. And at the far north of the borough, in Inwood Park, where the Lenape camped seasonally, green herons, red-tailed hawks, and wood ducks sound out a natural symphony that still survives in green corners of the contemporary city.

“Calling Thunder: The Unsung History of Manhattan” is available to explore online.

comments (0)