Q+A: Thomas Hynes, author of “Wild City”

Dumbo resident Thomas Hynes is the author of Wild City, an illustrated guide to 40 of the most well-known, surprising, notorious, mythical, and sublime non-human citizens of New York City, and love letter to its surprising ecological diversity. We sat down to talk about the book, Dumbo, and what he loves about New York City.

{This interview has been edited for length and clarity.}

Dumbo Improvement District: Hi Thomas! Why don’t you start out by telling us a bit about your DUMBO back story and what brought you to the neighborhood.

Thomas Hynes: Sure! I grew up in Stamford, CT. My mom and dad, and their parents, grew up in Park Slope, so I visited a lot as a kid and was eager to come back here. I spent a lot of time in Dumbo before I moved here; I used to work at the Media Center on John Street, and actually wrote some of the book there, and also at Brooklyn Roasting. My wife's sister moved to Dumbo first, and my wife and I followed her! I'd been living in Brooklyn for 10 years, and were happy to follow my sister-in-law down the hill.

"Ultimately, it's a story about New York’s ecological history."

What is "Wild City"?

Ultimately, Wild City is story about New York’s ecological history. It tells the story of forty of New York City's most surprising nonhuman citizens. It's an unconventional wildlife guide and concise environmental history of the Big Apple.

New York City could have been a national park. We’re in the harbor, right in the middle of a bird migration route; it’s a very special place. Of course, we hit a low point in the late 60s and early 70s, and most of the country did. That’s when the EPA was founded, and the Clean Water Act was passed. Since then, you have all these returned animals, like whales and peregrine falcons. These animals are proof that environmentalism works, that activism works. If you like turtles and whales, maybe don’t litter! Those are some of the lessons I hope to impart in the book.

Where did the inspiration for the book come from?

I love the city, so this was sort of my way in to write a book about New York. I was working as a corporate copywriter, and one of the articles I wrote was about the legend of alligators in the sewer system. It turns out there were a few of them at one point! Later, a friend suggested I go see the parrots in Greenwood Cemetery. I had a lightbulb moment where I remembered, oh yeah, there are oysters, and I heard there are dolphins…!

I thought I could do 8, maybe 12 chapters, and ended up with 40. Today I bet I could do 50! I wrote ten of those articles while working full time in public relations, and then decided to leave, and to write the book as my full time job. I was lucky that it worked out, but I had seeded it for a long time with those articles. I was writing the book for about two years.

Each chapter is about a different animal; that’s an important structure of the book. The animals are then broken out into categories that mimic the human New York experience. The first 8 or 9 are the native animals of the city, the Native New Yorkers. Then there are the immigrant animals: pigeons and rats, those beautiful parrots, coyotes and lots of other interesting things. There’s a lot of worker animals, from seeing eye dogs to the sheep that used to graze in Prospect Park. Then I have a section that’s celebrities and legends, like the Mandarin Duck, or the dolphin that unfortunately got trapped in the Gowanus Canal.

"New York City is actually a robustly wild place, and the more you look for it the more you see into it."

What are some of your favorite facts you learned while writing the book? Any interesting bits about DUMBO?

Half of the world’s oysters were here before the Europeans arrived. There are more peregrine falcons, which is the fastest animal on earth, per square mile in New York City than anywhere else in the world. There are huge whales, huge Finding Nemo turtles, seals and dolphins– it’s wild out there! Manhattan is actually one of the best places in the world to see birds. New York City is actually a robustly wild place, and the more you look for it the more you see into it. 

I have two chapters about Brooklyn Bridge Park. One of them is about these microscopic crustacean worms, technically mollusks, that eat all the wood supporting the piers in the park. They’re also on the FDR and all throughout the city. Christopher Columbus’ boat had these worms, and they couldn’t send one of them back because of them. It was a common maritime problem. 150 years later, they were no longer a problem in New York City because of polluted waterways, and neither were dolphins or whales or seals, right? The harbor and river are in great shape now. However, the park has to pay a crazy amount to protect from these ship worms. It cost 400 million to make, and about 300 million of that is to protect against these tiny worms!

There’s an amazing Brooklyn artist, Kath Nash, who made these beautiful illustrations of different scenes for the book. A lot of them we had to imagine, but a few are my own pictures of the park.

Can you speak a little more about the influence of Dumbo in "Wild City"?

The end of the book is also me sitting in Brooklyn Bridge park, talking about how wonderful it is and all the different animals and birds you can see there. Being in this neighborhood, you really get a sense of how the city can move forward while still holding onto its past. I live on Water Street, and being so close to the shore, it's clear how important the rivers and the harbor is. I used to joke that if you had spent as much time in Brooklyn Bridge Park as me you would write a book about New York City wildlife too! So it doesn’t feel surprising to me that that’s what ended up happening.

Being in this neighborhood, you really get a sense of how the city can move forward while still holding onto its past.

I think Dumbo is a neighborhood where you can really find a nice place to sit down and work on your book, which I don’t think is true everywhere.I think this is a really neat community and a really unique neighborhood where people are doing cool things. I’m sure I’m not the only person in this neighborhood that’s written a book and I’m not the only person who’s doing something on the side that’s their passion.

Having things like Powerhouse, and The Modern Chemist and a couple other stores that are selling the book is so cool. People are happy to support a local author. There’s a lot happening in this neighborhood, and I’m excited more people are moving here. I think the more the merrier. It’s a smart, walkable neighborhood, and I think the more of us that are living in walkable neighborhoods with lower carbon footprints is better. I’m all for it.

Learn more about Thomas Hynes and Wild City at https://thomashynesbooks.com/, follow along @WildCityNYC, and pick up your own copy at Powerhouse or The Modern Chemist!