The Archaeology of Disaster



west side highway and liberty st ny 10280

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

There is the sense that we are doing something wrong, Diana Wall and I, as we walk south from Franklin Street toward what is arguably Manhattan’s most compelling dig site, the hill of rubble that was, until recently, the World Trade Center. Wall is a New York-based archaeologist, whose book, “Unearthing Gotham: The Archaeology of New York,” co-authored with Anne-Marie Cantwell, is just coming out in the stores.

“Unearthing Gotham” examines New York archaeological history in all five boroughs, but most of Wall’s actual fieldwork has taken place in this part of Lower Manhattan, where for years she worked as a contract archaeologist and as curator of archaeology at the South Street Seaport Museum. Her most memorable find is 7 feet of road upon road upon road under what is now 85 Broad Street, the headquarters of Goldman Sachs. The lowest layer of road dates back to 1650. Her face lights up at the memory of it.

I point out a building at 75 Murray Street, which I know to have been designed by the founder of cast-iron architecture, James Bogardus. I wrote a piece on him once, featuring this building, and I am relieved to see the building still standing; I’ve been worried about it. The building looks beautiful–it’s completely unscathed–and it’s creamy color reveals not the slightest bit of fire damage. We pause, in shared awe of it. Then Wall, perhaps in fear that I’ll go off on a tangent, steers me back to our subject. “I don’t care about so much about buildings as I do what’s under the ground.”

She proceeds to tell me that, stored in the second basement under 6 World Trade Center, where the Customs House used to be, are two collections of city artifacts. One collection came from Five Points Site. “Five Points,” she explains, “was the most notorious slum of the nineteenth century. It was located east of Center Street. It was the area Dickens was dying to see when he came to New York in 1842. That whole collection is gone, except for a few artifacts that happened to be on loan to exhibits.”

“What was in the collection?”

“You know,” she answers, “what archaeologists love: garbage. Potshards, pieces of broken dishes, chamber pots. And this was really touching: a New World monkey, the kind that organ grinders used.” Part of another collection was also lost, she tells me. Artifacts from an excavation of an African burial ground located between what are now Duane and Reade Streets, just East of Broadway. “The human remains and the grave goods—what people were buried with—are intact,” she says. “What was destroyed was the garbage of people living on the same property in the early 19th century.” It all depended on what part of the basement the artifacts were stored in We have just hit Chambers and Greenwich and the milling crowds and the smoke distract us and our discussion of the past gives way to the more pressing present.

We are smelling what my son, Alex, has referred to, having so quickly adapted—as children do—as “the smell of home,” a mixture of burning plastic, computers, carpeting, human remains, what have you. We are treating our present day experience as if it’s already history, and there is an odd tension because of it. Maybe this is our own form of archaeology: accepting pamphlets. We are eying the hawkers of hats, gloves, tee shirts, all imprinted with American flag logos. We discuss our disapproval of the unwritten rule of our culture to capitalize on the moment. At the same time, we understand, for this is a moment we will all remember, and will tell our grandchildren about, as we clutch this American flag pin, or that red, white, and blue ribbon.

I have walked down here once, along the West Side highway, and I’ve taken the subway around it, and seen it from the Staten Island Ferry, but I have never taken a picture. I get out my camera.

People around us are speaking in myriad foreign languages.

“Tourists,” Wall comments wryly, “Not all of whom come from out of town.”

I tell her how, on my first trip down, when I thought of tourists coming to see this, it occurred to me, This is our urban Old Faithful.

“That’s a good comparison,” Wall says, as I snap my first souvenir picture. It’s hard to believe that the wreckage is still burning. Wall says she feels the need to come down here once a week.

“New York is my city, I grew up here. This is like part of my body. I have to make myself aware that it’s really real,” she adds “It happened with the Gulf War, and now it’s happening again, with the bombing in Afghanistan. It’s like video game wars. You see a lot of this on TV, but it becomes very remote, like a movie.” We keep bumping against barricades. Policemen; chain-link fences covered with green woven plastic, so you can’t see.

Someone hands me a flyer that says, “What’s Next? What can we do?” then answers its own question:

“One good deed”

Another flyer says, “Prayer is the best weapon of protection.”

A young woman passes out red, white, and blue elastic bands that say, “United we stand,” and “God Bless America.” I take three, one for me, one for each of my sons.

“Could I have two for my daughters?” asks the woman behind me.

“Another pair for my sister?” says another woman. It’s as if we’re latter day peasants begging for alms. We see a man dragging his small son by the hand,

“Would you bring your kids here?”

“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t.”

It’s comes at us from all angles. A sign in the window of the New York Sports Club reads, “It will also strengthen your spirit.”

We pass Saint Paul’s church, flanked by a Latin-American-style shrine, framed by a policeman and a national guard.

The buildings west of the former World Trade Centers are exposed, their glass windows warped, as if from heat. We stare at the windows, wondering if it’s an optical illusion, then realizing: there are missing windows covered with plywood. The windows are not just warped, but in some instances, gaping star-shaped holes. It looks at once innocuous—a standard modernist cityscape—and eerie, a witness of latter-day optimism and commerce.

There is the glass canopy of the Winter Garden, its burned-out backside. There is blue sky through the glass of buildings that have spent most of their time on earth in shadow.

Another building with arches looks like ancient ruins. Yet another looks burnt black, or charcoal-colored. There’s something kinetic about it, a sense of fractured movement, like in a futurist painting. It looks as if it’s in the process of falling.

There is dust on all the facades nearby, infinite shades of gray. “Do you think the facades were always this dirty?”

She doesn’t know.

We are standing to the side of Saint Peter’s Church, “the oldest Catholic church in New York,” according to Wall.

Something’s going on on the other side of the chain-link and green plastic. A mass is being projected over loudspeakers. There is music. A beautiful voice floats through the air, singing “Amazing Grace.” The sun is blinding. We cannot see. “It confirms our guilt,” I laugh.

“We’re blinded by looking,” she answers gamely, smiling.

A priest is praising Guiliani’s leadership, the bravery of firemen. The mention of heroes is followed by the mention of grief. There are crowds of onlookers shading their eyes, trying to catch a glimpse of what’s going on beyond the barricade.

I am suddenly snap-happy. “It’s beautiful,” I say, “in a strange way: the cranes, the flags, the music. She nods, pointing to a hose spraying onto the smoke, the arc of water in the sun. We have moved from the historical to the purely visual moment. It is beautiful. It is also awful.

At the corner of Maiden Lane and Broadway she points out the ultimate shot. There’s a man behind me urging me forward, like a coach, “you got it you got it, as long as you don’t let any heads block your view, get as close as you can, get up to the front. He gives me my shot than snaps his own. The people looking on behind me on the sidewalk are crying.

“That’s your picture, ” I tell her.

“Now we can go home and see it all on the news,” she joked. For the news—especially lately—has come to seem more real than actually being there, telling us what we just did, handing us history—or is it experience—in some identifiable package.

We later hear that the mass was for families of World Trade Center victims; that over 9,000 people had gathered to hear Bishop Egan saying mass; that Hilary Clinton and Mayor Guiliani and Governor Pataki were all behind the chain-link fence. That that beautiful voice belonged to Kathleen Battle.

But right now, we are caught up in aesthetics, composition. Trying to shoot above the heads of onlookers, pushing toward the front of crowds for an unobstructed view. For we are here now, and this is what it looks like. And I want to see it, to feel it, and, finally, to hold it in my hands.

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