The Anti-Plantation


The process of American cities becoming greener started with the development of New York City’s Central Park during the Civil War. The main aim behind this process was to improve the sanitary conditions of the city. Decades of urban expansion had turned large neighborhoods into wastelands. A series of recurrent cholera epidemics was the most important driving force behind these urban improvements. Cholera mostly arrived via a city’s trading routes, so immigrant and working-class neighborhoods were hit the hardest. Meanwhile, misconceptions of contagious diseases meant that the poor were blamed. The prevailing ‘miasma theory’ pointed to the slums as the source of the problem.   

Before cholera, the different colonization waves brought smallpox, measles, influenza, and bubonic plague to America’s ‘virgin soil.’[1] This burst of epidemics is known collectively as the ‘Great Dying.’ Estimates of the population in the Americas before 1492 (the year in which Columbus landed in the Americas) indicate that there were about 60.5 million people. By 1610, an unfathomable number of people had perished due to the pathogens introduced by the Europeans: the population was reduced by 90%.[2] Note that in 1619, the same decade in which the population of indigenous people was at its all-time low, the first African slaves arrived in the Virginia colony.

Great and complex civilizations disappeared before any historical record of their way of life was made. When settlers arrived at the grounds of current American cities, the indigenous communities were already severely diminished. Settlers saw vast lands, such as the island of Manhattan, free of ‘civilized’ people partly because of the diseases the settlers had inadvertently brought with them. Lewis H. Morgan conducted anthropological studies of the tribes that remained, forming the backbone of dominant civilization theories.[3] It is precisely because of their small number that the surviving indigenous communities were considered savages in the eyes of social theorists.[4]


The erasure of Manhattan’s earlier inhabitants studied by Morgan opened up unoccupied land for humans to live in, as exemplified by the Randall map of the city grid. It may still be too early to tell, but COVID-19 will likely bring new transformations to the urban fabric as extreme as the ones that were unleashed by cholera and the ‘Great Dying.’ It is also quite likely that New York City will become a ‘laboratory’ for future urban forms. Specifically, two types of interventions stand out for their capacity to generate new narratives and positive change. Firstly, archeological work that aims to uncover the lost history of Black, Indigenous, and people of color on the island, and secondly, new artistic interventions that discuss and redefine the value of monuments to a society. Both approaches seek to uproot misguided ideas of civilization.

New York City has always been a fertile ground for progress. Ideas of civilization first led to large-scale sanitation projects and, later, to development and revitalization agendas. The concept of progress is cemented in New York’s image through the paintings of Thomas Cole and the anthropological studies of Lewis H. Morgan—research that was later used by Friedrich Engels to expand on Marxist theory. On the other end of the political spectrum, the ideas posited by John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville shaped New York’s development strategies by applying the ‘harm principle’ to whitewash despotism.[5] Cole and Morgen created the category of Indigenous people in order to justify their removal, while Mill and Tocqueville did it to continue the process of exploitation that started in colonial times. Both approaches are examples of the White man’s burden of civilization. Out of this process, the racist categories of Indians and slaves were created. The same divisive principles of civilization were also applied to nature. Settlers in New York armed themselves with tools such as surveys and maps, which allowed them to see vast open spaces, to colonize the land.[6] It is in this context that the categories of ‘swamp’ and ‘epidemic’ came into use. Famous local thinkers, such as the commissioners of Central Park Egbert Ludovicus Viele and Frederick Law Olmsted, are a product of this milieu.

From Plantation to Park

In the summer months of the COVID-19 lockdown, an increasing number of visitors flocked to urban parks worldwide. Parks had not seen this level of popularity since the heydays of early industrial cities. Before the pandemic, parks had either become expensive pieces of infrastructure that were neglected by city administrators, or urban ‘amenities’ whose main function was to capture real estate profit. As winter approaches, their role in the current crisis is uncertain. However, parks are more than places for respite or mechanisms for money-making. Central Park was originally conceived of as the anti-plantation: its unfinished aim was to liberate people.[7] The so-called anti-plantation regulates leisure via a series of gates and enclosures. The city was for work; the park for relaxation. The anti-plantation was a democratic playground for new communities that were organized around leisure, in contrast to the authoritarianism and violent fragmentation of social life in the American South’s pre-war plantations. The park’s aim was to resolve social tensions that still prevail to this day.

Central Park is the product of a settler language that understands Western European knowledge as universal. One of the many aspects of this type of knowledge is the capacity to tame land and control water. Nineteenth-century Manhattan was basically a laboratory for keeping water in check. Central Park is roughly 800 acres in area, which is about the average size of a nineteenth-century plantation complex. Both park and plantation are the result of a transformation from swampy lands into machines that favor the growth of a select number of plant species. The drainage regimes are the backbone of these two enterprises, relying on complex engineering to create an optimal water flow. Viele and Olmsted, the commissioners of Central Park, were the foremost experts in earthworks in their time. Their combined knowledge constituted a deep understanding of the science, history, and imagination of the plantation. Together, Viele and Olmsted shaped the modernist object that we call `landscape’ in Central Park, and which was used in the American post-war democratic reconstruction.[8]


In the present, COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on people of color, much like cholera did in the nineteenth century. The solution to cholera came first in the form of a new water supply: pipes transported water from the remote Croton river. Later, the answer came in the form of appropriate drainage. In fact, Central Park was the testing ground for drainage in the city. Swamps and natural springs were efficiently transformed into lakes and ponds. In the same stroke of urban renewal, slums were identified through the first city-wide sanitary survey in 1865 and were subsequently dismantled in order to eradicate all miasmic spots.[9]

The nineteenth-century gave rise to nested enclosures at different scales, trapping water and air in some layers and workers and people of color in others. For instance, the captured Croton river appeared in a reservoir inside a park inside an island. Between the folds of these enclosures, people penetrated the gates and engaged in regimented activities of work and play. This succession of borders defined the contrast between public and private. COVID-19 is about to add yet more layers to this sandwich, if it has not done so already. Many have already encountered the new normal of working remotely on VPN connections to machines that remain inside empty offices. The ties between work and leisure are switched and twisted but were never interrupted.

Improvements in historical preservation, environmental restoration and social integration have only reinforced the enclosures that lead to the complex nesting of public space in America. This nesting is like a life jacket with lifelines reaching watersheds as far as the Catskills mountains some 200 miles away. Central Park is a fragile environment that has seen two official declines. The first decline was at the turn of the twentieth century, when park-goers turned to Coney Island via the new subway system. The second, in the 1970s, took place when the city of New York ran out of money. The latter decline exposed the resistance of nature to the rigid frame imposed on it by the park’s designers.


Meanwhile, archeological digs and new art interventions are leading the way towards ‘unnesting’ enclosures in the city’s public spaces. In this sense, the archeological sites in Manhattan, Seneca Village and the African Burial Ground share their history with the Croton Receiving Reservoir and Collect Pond. Both the village and the burial ground existed outside of the city’s formal bounds, and were erased when the town expanded. Collect Pond, north from the African Burial Ground, was the largest natural body of water on the island. Seneca Village emerged as Black people escaped the racism of the city center. It sat west of the Croton Receiving Reservoir, an artificial body of water that predates Central Park.[10] The digs have exposed a forgotten history of Black people in the city while challenging the anti-plantation narrative. The Black Lives Matter movement, the largest in American history, is a direct response to inconsistencies in the liberal ideal of American free society embodied by Central Park.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), discrimination, healthcare access, wealth gaps and housing are all to blame for the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Black people, Indigenous people and people of color. In the wake of the unrest provoked by the exposure of these conditions, Jeffrey Gibson’s sculpture “Because Once You Enter My House It Becomes Our House” in the Socrates sculpture park in Queens is one work, among many, that aims to rediscover the role of city parks in times of crisis. In the same vein as archeologists, artists offer triage in a war that is not only against an “invisible enemy,” but also against discredited ideas of progress. 


Mapping the City After Epidemics

The various maps of New York City illustrate the ideas of progress that shaped Central Park. At the same time, they open up the possibility of new visions for post-pandemic scenarios. Historical maps show how much of the original Manhattan water features, including Collect Pond, the largest pre-colonial waterbody, have disappeared to give way to the city. These successive clearings of natural ponds and swamps have shaped the artificial lakes of Central Park.

Collect Pond is represented in its full glory in the Welikia Project’s ‘Mannahatta’ 1609 digital map.[11] The Welikia Project chooses the end of the ‘Great Dying’ as the beginning of Manhattan. Before this time, the island was called Turtle Island; the Dutch colonists arrived only a few years later, in 1624. Collect Pond sat in the middle of downtown Manhattan, a site now occupied by correctional and administrative buildings, and Chinatown. In the eighteenth century, the pond, which was an important source of drinking water, became more and more polluted. The filling of the pond gave rise to the notorious Five Points neighborhood.

It follows that the ‘Great Dying’ stands at the origin of the island of Manhattan. It is this imagined colonial ground that one operates on when one speaks of ‘restoring the original ecology’: it is a vast wilderness, only possible to visualize through the language of landscape and Geographic Information Systems (GIS). By 1609—the year depicted in the Welikia map—Turtle Island was no longer ‘virgin soil.’ The Welikia map is the most detailed representation of the original post-epidemic state of New York City.

Moving forward in time, the art historian Clarence Cook published the first official history of Central Park in 1869, announcing to the civilized world the transformation of New York City into a metropolis similar in status to London, Berlin and Paris. Cook compares New York City to Jonah’s gourd, growing fast as if by magic only to be spoiled by a tiny worm. In New York, this pest was cholera, hitting the city in 1832, 1849, 1854, and 1866. The analogue of the gardener in the story of Jonah is the architect, and Central Park is supposed to prove that landscaping can fix social and environmental problems.[12] 

Before Central Park was created, the urban parks of the city were cemeteries. Cook explains that city planners envisioned a proper place for leisure in the image of London’s Hyde Park because the increasing number of funerals disturbed picnic-goers. Cook added that the park was constructed in response to people fleeing to the suburbs in need of nature. Cholera can explain both trends—the increase in deaths and people’s escape to the suburbs.


Around the same time, in 1865, Viele released the famous Sanitary and Topographical Map of the City and Island of New York. To this day, that map—the product of the larger project of a comprehensive report on the city’s sanitary conditions by the Council of Hygiene—is still used by structural engineers.[13] The drainage of Manhattan allowed to create an expanse of firm ground under the justification of health concerns, which constitutes the second-most significant transformation of the island after the ‘Great Dying.’ The changes spearheaded by the city in response to the cholera epidemic had begun earlier in the century with the Croton Water Supply; after completing this two-fold water supply and drainage system, the city set for a course of accelerated growth, only to be halted a century later by the greater danger of nuclear war.

Presently, an aerial image or a street map of New York City provides the white canvas for a new post-COVID-19 vision. The post-COVID-19 imagination will ultimately lead to a new material reality, comparable to the erasure of Collect Pond or the creation of Central Park. The idea of wilderness facilitated by the ‘Great Dying’ opened up the land to create new cities, while cholera made even more ground materialize out of swamps through drainage and landscaping. Cholera and the ‘Great Dying’ have favored a fabricated idea of a world built on a static surface, which is still in use today.

However, as infrastructure ages it becomes more challenging to maintain the water supply and drainage regime in New York City. Moreover, rising sea levels and leaky aqueducts challenge the lines drawn on maps, making the city’s water visible once more. A new epidemic has proven that the sanitary improvements of the past are obsolete.

America’s history of epidemics shows that living organisms display a wide range of responses to human encroachments. Unprecedented change on the surface of the earth has unleashed an unparalleled proliferation of pathogens. Nature does not take revenge, but epidemics can be interpreted as the cries of lost habitats. Could an account of these cries help shape our vision for a post-epidemic world? One could only hope that this new vision of urban renewal will ultimately do away with modernist ideas of progress and move beyond racial segregation and environmental destruction.

[1] Crosby, 1976

[2] Koch et al., 2019

[3] Morgan, 1904

[4] Engels, 1985 p. “The gentile constitution in its best days, as we saw it in America, presupposed an extremely undeveloped state of production and therefore an extremely sparse population over a wide area.” P. 175

[5] Mill, 2008

[6]Cunha (2019) and Mathur (2001)

[7] Gopnik, 1997

[8] Viele was an expert engineer and surveyor. Olmsted was a farmer and journalist, writing on the antebellum conditions in the American South.

[9] Citizens’ Association of New York. Council of Hygiene and Public Health, 1865

[10] diZerega Wall, et al., 2018 and Howard University et al., 2009

[11]Access via NYC Oasis:

[12] Cook, 1869

[13] Citizens’ Association of New York. Council of Hygiene and Public Health, 1865


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