(Good news – this will not be about the election! Come on in!)
This weekend was the city’s Open House weekend – a day when a number of the city’s cultural, historic, and otherwise significant sites open up to the public (or, if they’re already open that day, they open on a level more so than usual). It’s an even I’ve been vaguely aware of over the years, and finally kicked myself into heading out to explore.
One of the sites was actually right in my neighborhood. I live in Fort Greene, and the Prison Ship Martyrs’ Monument has gotten to be a familiar landmark over time; it’s a spire erected in 1908 devoted to commemorating people who died in prison ships anchored in New York harbor during the Revolutionary War. When it was first built, this spire had a staircase leading up to an observation deck up top, but that was long since closed; so when the Open House brochure promised a peek inside, I made it a stop.
The “peek” inside was pretty much exactly that. There was only enough room inside for fifteen people at a time, and a pair of rangers stood outside and dutifully counted each of us off, letting only a little cluster of us in at a time to listen to a third ranger give a lecture about the history of the monument, the prison ships, and the park surrounding it. We all huddled in, respectfully trying not to step on the huge door set in the floor with an inscription commemorating the dead.
However, when one of the other attendees asked about it, the ranger’s eyes twinkled a bit and she gave us a bombshell – this door is actually a fake door, constructed as a recent movie prop. It just looked so realistic that the park service decided to keep it.
The rest of my afternoon was similarly…Revolutionary. Castle Clinton was next – it’s not a “castle” as such, but rather a fort constructed at the very tip of Manhattan. These days it also does double duty as the box office for the ferryboats to the Statue of Liberty, so most visitors just come in for no more than a five-minute visit. The “museum” on site is also similarly small; a single room with a series of dioramas depicting New York harbor over the years, a few displays on the site itself, and a couple of display cases with some archeological trinkets found on occasion. But for this weekend, the site had also sprung for an added treat – the Marquis de Lafayette.
When I walked in, he was deep in conversation with a couple of Hamilton superfans; they were talking about what they’d heard about Lafayette from the show, and he was responding in character – “I am afraid I have not seen that performance, Madame, but I have heard about it, and they do take some theatrical liberties, I must say…” I lingered a while after they left to talk with him myself; he dropped character to tell me about how the popularity of Hamilton affected his gigs. “It used to be that I’d mention some names and get blank looks, but now I mention some of Lafayette’s more obscure friends and a couple of kids will perk up and nod, which is cool.” On the other hand, he said that during a recent gig he saw some kids’ faces light up when he was talking about Yorktown and used the phrase “rendezvous with Rochambeau”; he was a little afraid they were going to burst into song.
The Marquis got back into character when some other guests entered to tell us that “Monsieur Hamilton is actually at Federal Hall, along with Monsieur Washington, if you would like to pay a visit,” and indeed that was my next stop. That was more of a performance, though – with actors depicting Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton in an early cabinet meeting.
I unfortunately arrived a bit too late to catch the beginning, so instead I prowled through the building itself, peering at artifacts like the Bible Washington used during his Inauguration.
I did make the tour at the African Burial Ground National Monument. This is something I’ve long wanted to check out – I had only been living in the city for a few years when they first discovered the site, and the controversy over what to do with the site occupied New York’s press for a couple years after until the site was finally declared a national monument.
At first glance it’s not that different from a modern-ish city park; there’s a couple green plots, a granite memorial rising from the center, and a walkway down towards a central plaza. But the ranger leading the tour pointed out some of the design details, and each and every one was like a blow to the heart.
For instance, you can walk through the monument. That big granite slab is actually a gateway, placed just east of where some of the bodies disturbed during excavation were re-interred. They had all been buried with their heads oriented west, she explained, because the tradition was that they would face the rising sun. So the monument serves as a passage back east, back to Africa.
The ranger had us all pause inside before walking through; the design is meant to be narrow and cramped, with only a tiny skylight above offering light. A pool alongside the monument on the outside feeds a waterfall; the whole thing is meant to represent the hold of a slave ship.
The plaza you come to after passing through the granite monument is decorated with a globe, surrounded by a spiral walkway. On the wall flanking the walkway are symbols depicting several symbols found with some of the remains. The spiral continues at the end of the walkway, in the form of engraved descriptions of some of the hundreds of remains that the excavation had disturbed.
The engraving spiraled inward on the floor of the plaza, across the map, ending in Africa.
I’d actually forgotten that the monument design included a compromise. The site was originally meant to be a high-rise office building complete with parking garage; the research suggested that the original burial ground was vast, covering much of the city’s municipal district. Ultimately, the compromise involved an acre of land set aside for the monument, and a smaller building, which also had to house a visitor center on the first floor. Before they constructed the building, scholars from Howard University did a thorough study of the bodies on the site – nearly five hundred of them. A display inside the visitors center spoke to that research, which often revealed physical effects of hard work on the very bones on the site. One showcase had a collection of some of the items found with the bodies – buttons or cufflinks left behind after the clothes had degraded away, tin symbols which had been nailed to coffins, tokens tucked into hands, beads left around waists. One wall was covered, floor-to-ceiling, a display of all of the Polaroids they had taken of each body they found, where it lay.
There was a stand by the door where you could leave a comment card, but it was out of pencils; if I’d had a pen, I would have written that I can think of several people I wanted to drag to the site and point and say “look at this, you bastards.”