The Wild Lands of Gotham: City and Nature in Jamaica Bay, New York, 1880-1994
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This dissertation examines conflicts over Jamaica Bay, a 25,000-acre estuarine lagoon bordering southern Brooklyn and Queens that at the end of the nineteenth century was one of the largest undeveloped areas in New York City. Determining the relationship between city and nature was the central conflict in the bay’s history. While activists, developers, and officials sought to transform the bay into parks, suburbs, and a port, local residents fought to maintain their homes in what they envisioned as the Venice of New York—an unconventional hybrid space of city and nature. By examining the interplay of competing conceptions of Jamaica Bay over its history, this study will show how both elite and working class New Yorkers were able to exercise power over the bay’s development and the complex ways in which its spaces were understood. Tensions peaked in 1969 with the creation of Gateway National Recreation Area, one of the first urban sites run by the National Park Service dedicated to preservation and mass recreation. As they had done before, elites invoked class- based arguments against residents’ use and care of the bay but the changing politics of the 1960s reversed the dynamic, leading to the bay’s inhabitants winning the right to continue living within its spaces. The victory of Jamaica Bay’s residents codified their vision of a hybrid space, forcing Gateway’s administrators to approach the conceptualization of their park in novel ways.