New York has never been much for cobblestone and colonnade, vistas seeping historical vernacular and cocooning inhabitants in fantasies of a past continuum. Famously amnesiac, its building stock chronically provisional, New York offers a past that comes at us in fits and starts–a sideways glimpse, a shimmering peripheral vision at best. Mostly, though, we rehash it through our great municipal pastime, the blood sport of New York real estate.
Sometimes it’s the prospect of a new building that sends sparks through the city’s neural circuitry: The lost bones of history get dug up, an anonymous slot of land is charged with a new geography, its thereness suddenly lit up like a flare. The 19-story V3 Hotel going up on Duffield Street in downtown Brooklyn, for instance, caused the demolition of a row house thought to be a way station on the underground railroad and released the sharp gasp of outcry.
Almost always in these cases, the development pushes on unabated (this is New York, after all). Still, amid the commotion–the aggrieved letters to the editor, the rallying cries of protest, the up-overnight Web sites–maybe some small historical inkling is incubated. It worries at the frayed ends of collective cognizance until action seems not just possible but necessary–by now a whole mass of thread has been implicated. And in the case of Duffield, maybe, possibly (we don’t know yet) a museum dedicated to New York abolitionism springs forth.
But then sometimes memory works the opposite way: New York awakens to itself only to find the physical evidence already gone, appraised and paved over by the developers of decades or even centuries past. Which is more or less what happened on Lispenard Street, an abbreviated little lane sunk just below Canal Street. It was where David Ruggles–prolific abolitionist pamphleteer, radical newsprint impresario, steward of some 600 fugitive slaves to freedom, “the terror of Southerners visiting the Northern cities,” as William Wells Brown called him–shot through New York like something cosmic, something revelatory, and it is where he disappeared from memory, too.
Ruggles bobbed up on the streets of New York in 1827, the 17-year-old son of freed black parents. He came, like many blacks of the day and like many others immemorial, with no money, no connections, but stirred by the prospect of New York, gambling on the nebulous juncture between anonymity and luck. He wasn’t a fugitive per se (though by de facto street law, in which blacks could be kidnapped off the street at any moment and shipped South with virtual immunity, fugitive or free was often an arbitrary distinction), but he moved through the streets with the restless energy of someone outpacing things unknown. Sleepless was how people described him.
Ruggles opened a grocery store on the corner of Lispenard and Broadway. By the age of 23, he’d transformed it into a black reading room and lending library, and the corner quickly became a hub for abolitionist press. Ruggles had an uncanny instinct for selling newsprint, and he traveled widely, peddling subscriptions, first for the abolitionist paper The Emancipator and later his own Mirror of Liberty, the first magazine by an African-American. For a people denied the most basic liberties, Ruggles believed the press was a fierce rejoinder, one he said “we wield in behalf of our rights.” Even those who couldn’t read were often swayed by his impassioned appeal, handing over the $2.75 for an annual subscription.
Meanwhile, Ruggles’ home at the other end of the block, a townhouse at 36 Lispenard Street, became a known terminal on the underground railroad, and through it Ruggles ferried, by his count, 600 runaway slaves to freedom. Among them was Frederick Douglass, who was also married at Ruggles’ Lispenard Street house.
The relatively well-heeled street was mostly insulated from the racial violence endemic to the times. (Although Ruggles was never entirely immune, enduring several stints in jail and narrowly dodging a kidnapping attempt.) New York in the 1830s was a combustible jumble of abolitionist fervor and pro-Southern business. Its waterways placed it at the crux of trade between the South and Europe, and the lifeblood of its fast-inflating commercial sphere (the population, too, more than doubled between 1810 and 1830) was intimately tied to the slave economy. Southern masters frequently visited on business and sometimes kept homes in the city, bringing their slaves along with them.
Though technically by then slaves residing in New York longer than nine months were considered free by law, in fact this was a provision seldom enforced. Ruggles infuriated slave owners by appointing himself a kind of emancipator, and what’s more doing so with an assiduously dispassionate reason. In one case, he entered the home of a South Carolina family residing in Brooklyn Heights and announced the freedom of a slave named Charity. After living in New York for four years, Charity had contacted Ruggles’ antislavery organization to seek help. When a neighbor accused him of intruding, Ruggles charged the neighbor with intruding against the laws of liberty and the State of New York.