Revealing New York City's past

In restoring City Hall Park, the Big Apple digs carefully into its past

April 23, 1999|By Dan Barry | Dan Barry,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK A nondescript chain-link fence separates New York City's present from its past. On one side, people hustle to the subway stations and soaring office buildings of lower Manhattan. On the other, archaeologists on their knees dig by hand through the historically fertile soil of City Hall Park.

They have uncovered pieces of the long clay pipes popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, a coin from the Dutch East Indies from 1806, shards of pottery, scattered bits of human bone.

The starkest juxtaposition of then and now was found a couple of weeks ago: less than five feet from a well-traveled sidewalk along Chambers Street, workers came upon the partial skeletal remains of two bodies from another century.

"They're both laid out in the same way," Marilyn London said the other day, her blue hard hat more suggestive of a construction worker than the physical anthropologist that she is. "One has its hands crossed."

In late January a group of archeologists, equipped with sifting screens and a command of the city's history, quietly brought their talents to the 10-acre park that surrounds City Hall. They are essentially an advance team, assigned to make sure that a $12 million renovation of the park does not disturb the buried legacy of a city.

It is a legitimate concern. The earth beneath the grass in some sections provides a kind of tablet of the city's raucous past, said Michael Wallace, who with Edwin G. Burrows is co-author of "Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898" (Oxford University Press, 1998). "There is probably no place else in the city where there is such a dense agglomeration from past events," he said.

At one time this former sheep meadow lay on the young town's northern outskirts, set aside by elders as an unofficial dumping ground for the poor, the diseased, the criminal. An almshouse was built here in 1736, intended for thieves, rogues, unruly servants and "Poor Needy Persons and Idle Wandering Vagabonds." Here too was the looming Bridewell, a jail that one newspaper said was for "the great number of vagabonds daily sculking about this city."

But the park, part of what was then known as "the Commons," also came to represent a community's thirst for liberty, free speech and social justice. The Sons of Liberty paraded here, often taunting their British occupiers who were stationed in barracks on the grounds. And with the completion of City Hall in 1811, the park's reputation as the place for public, even violent, protest was secured, attracting massive demonstrations on everything from abolition to a hike in the cost of flour.

"This was both a place for civic castoffs and a place for civic rallies," Wallace said. "It is drenched in many varieties of blood."

Given the park's history and its inclusion in a landmark district with the African Burial Ground, just north of Chambers Street the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission finds itself with considerable input in the Parks Department's project, which is scheduled to be completed in the fall. Those intertwined missions have made for a careful choreography between landscape architects charged with recreating the park's 19th century elegance and the archeologists charged with preserving its ghostly remnants.

"We're not doing an archeological dig here," Jennifer Raab, chairwoman of the landmarks commission said. "At this point, we're trying to protect an area that should not be disturbed. And it's our goal to be ahead of the construction workers."

Pub Date: 04/23/99

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