Oysters are one of New York Harbor’s best chances for clean water and protection from future storm surges. These are the same oysters that New Yorkers have done their best to destroy through pollution and overconsumption over centuries. But did you know how these oysters helped in the building boom of New York City back in the 1700s?
Oysters were so plentiful and popular in New York City in the 1700s that the discarded shells were repurposed into mortar paste to aid the city’s building boom. Trinity Church is an example of an oyster-shell-built structure.
The Oyster Story of New York City
When Henry Hudson arrived in New York City in 1609, the harbor and surrounding waters contained approximately 350 square miles of oyster reefs. These waters were home to nearly half of the world’s oyster population, some of which were almost one foot long.
Everyone in New York ate oysters. The rich considered them a delicacy, while the poor appreciated their low cost and ease of collection. Oyster taverns sprouted up all over the city to satisfy the seemingly insatiable appetite. However, this rate could not be sustained, and the oyster populations were soon threatened on multiple fronts.
For starters, they were over-harvested. Many people were eating too many oysters, and New Yorkers aren’t exactly known for their restraint. Things started to look bad when the oyster beds around Staten Island became depleted in 1820. Undaunted by this foreshadowing, New York continued to harvest oysters at a record pace. By the early 1900s, more than a billion were extracted from the area’s waterways yearly. (Source: Untapped Cities)
The Oyster’s Demise
Finally, waste management, or the lack thereof, played a role in the oyster’s demise. In the 1970s, New York regularly dumped millions of raw, untreated sewage into the harbor. During peak flow, the city’s combined sewer system still ejects sewage and stormwater. Not surprisingly, the oyster beds perished. Due to fears of food-borne illness, including typhoid, the New York City Health Department closed the Jamaica Bay oyster beds in 1921, which were responsible for 80 million oysters yearly. The end came quickly after that, and six years later, in 1927, the last New York City oyster bed was closed in Raritan Bay.
The passage of the Clean Water Act fifty years later, in 1972, provided some relief to the harbor, but it was too little, too late. The species of New York City oysters would survive, but they would not be fit to eat anytime soon. And with that, New York City had squandered one of its most valuable natural resources by encroaching on their habitat, over-harvesting their population, and dumping garbage on what was left.
Oysters are said to be a perfect real-time reflection of their surroundings. As a result, if people living near oyster beds are reckless and poisonous to their environment, it will be reflected in the oysters. In New York City, oysters were among the first victims of gentrification. (Source: Untapped Cities)
Image from Vitalchoice.com