New York’s new history

An archaelogical find on a building site in New York has resulted in a sensitive design competition. Peter Hall tells the story of what lies beneath Manhattan’s Federal building

A forgotten story has brought a change of heart in the city of ambition and ephemera.

Manhattan is commonly stereotyped as an architectural environment thrown up with scant regard for urban planning, preservation or tradition. It’s the city that tore down its most spectacular railway station, the Pennsylvania, in the 1960s, and replaced it with an ugly subterranean mall. It’s the island that was purchased from Native Americans for trinkets (worth about 25) and turned into an overcrowded metropolis. “A man born in New York 40 years ago finds nothing, absolutely nothing of the New York he knew”, complained Harper’s Monthly in June 1856.

Lately, however, New York has become more conscious of the rich history below its ostentatious skyline. When, in 1991, workers digging in lower Manhattan began uncovering human bones, archaeologists were called in, and construction of a new Federal government building was halted. The bones, it transpired, were the contents of a huge 18th century burial ground for African slaves, that stretched across two hectares of what is now the administrative centre of the city.

In the ensuing rumpus, the US government building agency, the General Services Administration (GSA), conceded to delay construction of the building to allow the excavation of some 400 burial plots. These were shipped off to Howard University, where tests revealed one third of the remains were of people actually born in Africa, who had survived the notorious middle passage, and nearly half of the skeletons were those of children. New York had unearthed a rich and emotionally charged piece of black history. The find showed that enslaved Africans in colonial New York had a strong community and spiritual life despite being disenfranchised by their circumstances. It also shed light on a largely undocumented history of this oppressed community; a welcome counterbalance to the richly detailed accounts of New York’s ruling and wealthy classes in the history books.

Suddenly the boring Federal building was the focus of the city’s attention. The GSA was obliged to continue construction, but also to re-allocate $3m from its construction budget toward a project that would mark the burial ground. African American representatives met and decided that the remains themselves, once they had been investigated, would be respectfully reburied at the site. The GSA set aside a 925m2 green outside the building for a memorial park, but came under heavy criticism for not involving African Americans in the plans. There were calls for a museum at the site, and for it to be protected as a national landmark. They were partially answered. The burial ground, virtually unknown in 1991, was designated 18 months later by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. The GSA, meanwhile, hired Margaret King Jorde, an African American consultant, to act as project executive for the building of an interpretative centre and memorial, and announced a design competition to solicit proposals for these new projects.

With the GSA’s official request for design bids (the RSP) nearing publication, Jorde is doing her best to ensure that word gets out that this is a project requiring collaborations of an unusual nature, bringing together a variety of disciplines and cultural mixes. An entire African American museum is clearly not feasible in the 200m2 space given over to the centre in the Federal building. But Jorde is looking for “dynamic and creative ways” to tell the story of the site, from teams that bring in the expertise of multimedia designers, sculptors, artists, engineers and exhibition designers. “We’re talking about a project that is culturally sensitive,” she says, “and our aim is to tap into the entire professional design community, including the African American community.”

Down at Foley Square, where the memorial and centre will be based, a small, green patch of land has been fenced off and marked with a sign. A window overlooks the square from the new Federal building, where the interpretative centre is to be located. What will follow will provide an interesting example of New York City’s new-found reverence for its past, and a benchmark exhibition design project, for a story that has largely been forgotten.

Jorde has one concern with the exterior site and memorial: New York’s rather loud and insistent presence. “It is to be considered a sacred place”, she says of the memorial park. “In an urban place like New York City, that’s quite a design challenge.”

Latest articles