A Subterranean Look at How We Were

GEORGE F. WILL

January 02, 1992|By GEORGE F. WILL

NEW YORK — New York. - Rome's subway was not built in a day. Excavators frequently found antiquities -- an ancient bath, a pope's toothbrush -- and archaeologists swarmed in to sift and sort.

Intuition says America is too young to have urban archaeology. A swarm of students and archaeologists, wearing sweatshirts, jeans and some of the damp clay in which they are carefully digging, says otherwise. They are doing ''salvage archaeology'' at a construction site on Manhattan's Lower East Side, in an 18th-century graveyard built over long ago.

More than 90 bodies have been found, all buried with their heads to the west so they will face the Savior when he comes from the east on Judgment Day. Before the cemetery was closed in 1790 it was a burial ground for blacks and a potter's field. About 1,500 American POWs were held by the British nearby, most of them from the battle of Long Island, and perhaps 800 died of disease.

The skeletons are disproportionately of women, infants and children, which suggests the distribution of the hazards of 18th-century life. From the evidence of teeth and bones, forensic archaeologists can learn much about life back then, concerning nutrition and common traumas. Among the thousands of human remains that may be here, perhaps, are those of the blacks executed for various ''conspiracies'' -- executed by burning at the stake or hanged and left to rot in public.

A few blocks away another construction site is rich with remnants of the most savage side of the 19th-century city. Beginning around 1820, Five Points was a dark mecca, perhaps the world's most notorious slum, attracting the curious by the stench of its reputation.

When Lincoln came to the city in 1860 to deliver his Cooper Institute address, he asked to see two things, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn where Henry Ward Beecher delivered anti-slavery sermons, and Five Points. Charles Dickens had considered it at least as repellent as Oliver Twist's London. Five Points was among the places Jacob Riis wrote about in the book whose title put a phrase in the American language: ''How the Other Half Lives.''

How, indeed, did they live in Five Points? Nastily, brutishly and often briefly. When, after the 1832 cholera epidemic, the mayor ordered the streets scraped of animal and human filth, a lady who had lived all her life in the city exclaimed about the uncovered pavement, ''I never knew the streets were covered with stones.'' In the 1849 epidemic, pigs rooting in the streets were, a report said, ''contaminated by the contact of the children.'' It was said that in death the victims continued the tenement system, buried six tiers deep.

Most Five Points buildings, the rubble from which is now 15 to 20 feet below street level, contained a saloon. The police raided one in which 42 customers were crammed into one small room, in the corner of which on a pile of dirty straw lay a woman just delivered of a child.

For years police rarely ventured into Five Points, and only in force, showing a prudent regard for the famous gangs: the Shirt Tails, Roach Guard, Plug Uglies and Dead Rabbits. These gangs, and the unorganized rabble of Five Points, fueled the riots of July 1863.

They began as draft riots, became race riots, then turned to pillaging the rich. Regular army units fought, often house-to-house, to restore order. At least 2,000 New Yorkers were killed. (Two comparisons: Forty-three died in the Detroit riot of 1967. Thirteen of Andrew Jackson's soldiers were killed at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.)

Eventually the problem of Five Points was solved the way America often cures its slums, by building over it. One of the great 19th-century buildings in the area is the Tweed Court House which (another national tradition) became the Mother Of All Cost Overruns. It was supposed to cost $250,000. It cost at least 30 times that -- not counting the 50,000 brooms and 23 acres of carpets ordered for the building from politically correct broom and carpet makers. From the Plug Uglies to the Tweed Ring, the evolution of the neighborhood was from violent to government crime.

As 1992 dawns, with a mood of depression in the nation, ''salvage archaeology'' can serve America's sense of perspective. As this city's life today shows at every turn, society's evolving sense of decency has a long way to go. But it has been worse.

Furthermore, such archaeology gives to us, in our no-longer-quite-so-New World, the useful sense we get when we first set foot in the Old World: How many footsteps have fallen here, how heavy and dense our history is, and how large and swarming and stirring is the story of which all of us are but small passing parts.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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