March 24th, 2014
History of Environmentalism
Fishbowl Politics: A Tour of the New York
Aquarium, Castle Clinton, 1896-1941
At the very tip of the island of Manhattan, within a stone’s throw of New York City Harbor, a pair of jet black, iron doors stand erect. Three layers of cross picketing, tied together with 768 bolts make the 12-foot tall gates able to withstand virtually any force, save the fire of a canon shot . After all, the 12-foot high doors were the last line of defense between the British navy and Castle Clinton Fort during the war of 1812. Today, the doors remain virtually unchanged—other than the face that they remain swung open to welcome eager tourists with the threat of war long dissipated. Inside the red brick sandstone walls, imitation canons line the perimeter, punctuated with plaques inscribed with the fort’s storied past—from an opera house welcoming the likes of the great singer Jenny Lind to immigration depot proceeding Ellis Island welcoming 8 million immigrants during a 34-year span .
I invite the reader of this essay to step through those iron-bound gates and enter Castle Clinton not as a fort defending against the British (1811-1820), nor an Opera House catering to the hoi polloi, nor the origin for so many immigrant families and futures (1855-1890), nor its modern incarnation as a stagnant memorial. Rather, I invite you to step through those doors into perhaps Castle Clinton’s greatest incarnation: The New York Aquarium as it stood in the Battery during its hay-day in the 1920’s. Inside, 42 skylights shine Manhattan sunlight onto a large central pool where porpoises play to the delight of the crowd. The large pool is framed by nine smaller tanks filled with sea lions, peng...
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...] guidance the aquarium has made great advances in the face of considerable obstacles .” It is in little doubt to the author – and ostensibly the reader- of this essay that the New York Aquarium improved in its time in the Battery. By the time of its relocation due to a controversial decision by Parks Commissioner Robert Moses in 1941, 84 million visitors had experienced Townshend’s vision of the ocean—making the Aquarium arguably the most popular institution of early 20th Century New York. Rather, it is the author’s hope that a history of the aquarium’s transition from a poorly-run politically motivated sideshow into the longest operating public facility in North America reveals that an aquarium is so much more than the fish its got in the tanks. It is the product of the maneuverings of the politicians, naturalists, and organizers who put the fish in the tanks.