Unearthing New York

From sanctioned digs to scavenging shores, here are five spots to mine city history.

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  • Photograph: Virginia Rollison

    Dead Horse Bay

  • Photograph: courtesy CentralParkConservancy

  • Photograph: Caroline Voagen Nelson

Photograph: Virginia Rollison

Dead Horse Bay

Dead Horse Bay
Archeologists and hip urban foragers flock to this glass-strewn stretch of marshland for Prohibition-era apothecary and liquor bottles. There are so many containers that collectors refer to it as Bottle Beach. The smelly spot was named for the horse-rendering plants and fish-oil factories that dotted the landscape from the 1850s to the 1930s. It then served as a landfill until its cap burst in the 1950s—the dumping ground has been spewing vintage garbage ever since. Now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area, the site offers easy pickings for people like Amy Burchenal, who uses sea glass in her House of Z jewelry line (houseofz.com). "It's best to go at low tide and wear thick-soled shoes," she recommends. Sandy beaches are also the only spot where the city permits scavengers to use metal detectors and dig for buried treasure. Flatbush Ave at Aviation Rd, Marine Park, Brooklyn (718-338-3799, nps.gov).

South Street Seaport
For more than 300 years, this shorefront spot was Manhattan's hangout for sailors and fishmongers. When developers began building high-rises in the area in the 1970s and '80s, the construction sites became a hot spot for contemporary treasure hunters and archeologists. In the '80s, mixed-media artist Scott Jordan, who incorporates historical artifacts into his work, snuck into one such spot—at the corner of Front Street and Old Slip—with his tools at 2am. "The dirt was stored in an empty lot by the Manhattan Bridge. I looked through it before it was thrown in trucks and hauled away to be buried again in a landfill," he says. Jordan unearthed a Revolutionary-era find in a rare 17th-century onion bottle, a squat English wine jug designed to stay upright on the high seas. City agencies, such as the Department of Design and Construction, which was founded in 1996, often sponsor excavations to preserve any history buried underground before building projects progress. The basement of a 1860s print shop, complete with filled inkwells, was unearthed last year in one such dig by Alyssa Loorya and the Chrysalis Archeological Consultants team. The South Street Seaport Museum, which reopened January 26, shows the changing topography of the city in "Manhatta: Manhattan in 1609." 89 South St at Fulton St; (212-748-8600, seany.org). Wed--Sun 10am--6pm; $5. Opens Thu 26.

Gowanus Canal
You'll have to be a brave—or crazy—soul to search the ultra-polluted waterway for historical nuggets. However, the Superfund site holds a number of timeworn treasures dating to its construction in the mid-1800s. Sonar readings have already identified sunken boats, including a 60-foot wooden vessel, which may eventually surface during the decade-long cleanup process. In the meantime, amateurs willing to brave the sludge can plug their noses and fish around the section of the canal that passes Union, DeGraw and Douglass Streets near Nevins Street: It's close to the Old Stone House, one site of the 1776 Battle of Brooklyn, and is thought to contain objects dating back to the Revolutionary War. If you'd rather not wade in the waste, historical maps, preserved fauna and other artifacts retrieved from the canal are on display at exhibition space Proteus Gowanus. Proteus Gowanus, 543 Union St at Nevins St, Gowanus, Brooklyn (718-243-1572, proteusgowanus.org). Thu, Fri 3--6pm; Sat, Sun noon--6pm; free.

Central Park
Last summer, a team of undergraduates from City College of New York dug up 1820s ceramics, kitchen utensils, walls and fragments of clothing from the city's first African-American settlement, Seneca Village. "The objects in their own right aren't interesting to us—it's about the stories they tell," says CCNY professor Diana diZerega Wall, one of three faculty members who supervised the dig. The early 19th-century-neighborhood stood on the west side of the park, between 81st and 89th Streets, until it was demolished in the late 1850s to make room for the sprawling green space. The team compared modern park maps with 1850s settlement diagrams to learn about the items' owners and used radar to find sections chock-full of artifacts. They also stationed guards at the site around the clock during the eight-week dig to deter looters. Central Park, enter at Central Park West and 85th St (212-310-6600, centralparknyc.org).

Van Cortlandt Park
One of New York's most prominent early families, the Van Cortlandts, settled in the park that now bears their name in 1694 and lived on the property until selling it to New York City in 1889. More than a century later, archeologists had a field day when they discovered that the family had dumped hundreds of plates and medicinal bottles into underground pits. A Brooklyn College team searched newspapers, magazines and merchant records to learn about the discarded wares. "There's a myth that archeologists spend all of our time on sites," says another Chrysalis archeologist, Chris Ricciardi, who participated in the digs as a student in the 1990s. "It isn't true. Most of the time, we're digging in libraries." Historic objects found during the excavations, such as plates and flatware, are on display at the Van Cortlandt House Museum. Van Cortlandt Park, Broadway at 246th St, Bronx (718-543-3344, vancortlandthouse.org). Tue--Fri 10am--3pm; $5, seniors and students $3.

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2 comments
Nanci
Nanci

Wonderfully illuminating! It's so interesting that urban treasures can exist in such unlikely dwellings and each has its unique story of retrieval and revival. It brings the excitement of discovery within reach. One truly doesn't have to look far to discover the stories of the past.

Jason
Jason

Fascinating article. The notion that our history surrounds us in this way (or at least is beneath us) makes these old items seem to have a place in our present. Like all native New Yorkers, I like to romanticize the way things were. But it adds some zaz to see the New York as something I didn't know it was after all these years. It reminds me of Seattle's Great Fire in 1889, where the City just built another city on top of the burnt remains but can still visit the old city as the historical site - Seattle Underground.