A year and a half ago, on the anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn, my wife, some friends, and I took an organized tour of the battlefield. There is little physical evidence left to tell even the most observant that George Washington once led his troops down Flatbhush Avenue; a cannon here and there, a few plaques, and some witness trees are about it. Still, we walked the sites following the chronology of the battle at least getting s sense of the topography. The talk was conducted by an anthropologist–not historian–from Hunter College. It was one of the best and most informative of the dozens of tours I have been on in my years of visiting historical sites. I had always known of course that much history still lies below our feet waiting to be rediscovered. Laborers, most of them immigrants who had passed through Ellis Island, discovered the centuries-old Tijger when digging the 7th Avenue subway line in 1916. Construction workers unearthed the detritus of everyday Dutch colonial life during the construction of the Word Trade Center in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Last year another ship was found at what is now Ground Zero, this one dating back “only” to the late eighteenth century. Most famous of course is the African Burial Ground, which is now a national monument run by the Park Service. The ABG is commemorating the 20th anniversary of the rediscovery of the 17th century grave. Intellectually I had always known about phenomena like the ones I mentioned above. It is just that it was not until standing there at the entrance to Prospect Park–the very place where we and thousands of other New Yorkers buy their fruits and vegetables every Saturday–hearing this anthropologist talk about the soldiers’ remains likely still present eight to ten feet below us, did it hit home emotionally. It was announced this week that Con Ed workers have unearthed 5,000 new artifacts while digging on Fulton Street this autumn.
Ironically when New York City builds for the future it discovers more of its past.