Tracing the Past

by Don Friedman on May 29, 2017


There’s a great article up at Curbed making the type of connection between past and present that I’ve tried to do here: A Walking Tour of 1767 New York. It even discusses looking for Temple Street, which briefly occupied my attention. 

Physical remnants of New York’s colonial history are frustratingly difficult to find because of the speed, extent, and thoroughness of development in Manhattan during the nineteenth century. Every street was repeatedly dug up, nearly every building was replaced once or twice, and any natural feature that could be changed was. The Collect Pond was filled in, the hills cut down, the shorelines straightened and then moved outwards, and the streams buried. 

Even street paths, which are ordinarily resistant to change*, were realigned. We know approximately where everything was – and I mean everything, since the New York of that era was a village and later a town small enough that could be entirely known – but precise locations are hard to pin down. The only ones we’re certain of are the few surviving structures and locations** and a few locations where archaeology has found buried remnants. 

There’s an argument, somewhere on the border between philosophy and frivolity, that the lack of  physical  manifestations of the past is good, in that it allows New York to do what it does best, which is self-mythologize. I think this is a bad idea even on its own terms, since myth-making, like history, is interpretation of a core of fact, and is damned hard to make work if that core is lacking.  

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* The reluctance of private land owners to change the boundaries of their lots is the rock on which Wren’s plan to reconstruct London sank.

** for example, Bowling Green, the Trinity churchyard, and St. Paul’s Chapel

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