A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
After spending $85 million to restore a historic courthouse, New York is poised to cover up much of the work, while dismissing evidence of the city's past exposed during the renovation.
Some cities nurture their history, carefully tending the vestiges of the near and distant past. Others are so busy hurtling toward tomorrow that they overlook or even dismiss their accumulated heritage. For evidence of New York City's tendency to do just that, one need go no further than the fractious debate over how the brilliantly restored New York County (Tweed) Courthouse is to be used and the questionable treatment of human remains found during its renovation.
Built in a late nineteenth-century era of corruption upon the bones of earlier New Yorkers, the long-neglected courthouse now rises majestically just north of City Hall in Lower Manhattan. Its renovation has summoned long-forgotten ghosts of the city's past. New York's infamous Boss Tweed has re-entered public consciousness, and archaeologists have recovered pieces of the lives of Revolutionary War soldiers, slaves, criminals and debtors, and the poor and the infirm, all of whom left their mark on an area of Lower Manhattan once known as the Commons.
In a move that has stunned and outraged archaeologists, historians, and preservationists, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has killed a proposal to move the Museum of the City of New York (currently off the beaten tourist track on the Upper East Side) into Tweed Courthouse. Instead, he favors using it to house the Board of Education, city offices, and possibly a school. If this plan moves ahead, most New Yorkers will never see the inside of the building that cost the city $85 million to restore. Moving city offices back in and adding classrooms will obscure much of the restoration work that's been done, while a unique opportunity to place a museum celebrating New York City's past in a great historic building in the heart of the early city will be missed. Compounding this is the fact that for the third time in a decade, government officials have made decisions about excavated human remains without consulting the public first.
Archaeologists from Hartgen Archeological Associates, Inc., hired to test for archaeological resources during the Tweed Courthouse restoration, anticipated unearthing a few historic artifacts and scattered human remains associated with the Commons historic district, but expected most archaeological deposits to have been disturbed by the building of the courthouse. Instead they found 23 intact skeletons, mostly in front of the building and just inches below the sidewalk surrounded by utility lines. "Everybody was so surprised that there was still anything there and that what was there was preserved so well," says Carol Raemsch, the Hartgen project director. After recording in situ all the burials they exposed, the archaeologists protected them with sand and wooden boxes according to the policies of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, and construction workers repaved the sidewalk and street over them.
This procedure raises questions of whether this policy ensures the safest and most respectful treatment of the burials and recalls the secrecy surrounding burials in the African Burial Ground immediately north ("Bones and Bureaucrats," March/April 1993) and City Hall Park, immediately south ("Cover-Up at City Hall?" September/October 1999, and "Under City Hall Park" February 25, 2000). A single burial plot at Tweed Courthouse and City Hall Park could contain the bones of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century vagrants, criminals, almshouse residents, free blacks, slaves, French or American prisoners-of-war, and British soldiers. Although there is no distinct descendant community to consult, modern New Yorkers, if informed, would probably have had an opinion as to how the remains should be treated. Fearing controversy and the slowing of the wheels of progress, the city has excluded the public from the decision-making process.
It's easy to see why archaeologists, historians, and preservationists are so disappointed with the plan to move the Board of Education, a school, and city offices into Tweed. For the moment, a single plaque is nestled in the grass in City Hall Park, recognizing those buried there. New York has an ideal opportunity to savor its past. Instead, it's choosing to look the other way.
Colleen P. Popson is associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.