Digging the Urban Past: A Subterranean Panorama

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Gotham: The Archaeology of New York City , by Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana

diZerega Wall. Yale University Press, 374 pages, $39.95.

New York is a city that eats

its history. As soon as market forces decree that a neighborhood must be put to

a new use, developers and their architects swoop in to alter street life,

landscape, and skyline. The process has slowed somewhat with the advent of the

preservation bureaucracy, but Poe homes and meat markets are still varianced

into oblivion, and soon forgotten by future generations.

Some of the waste from this

conspicuous consumption escapes oblivion, thanks to urban archaeologists who

sift buried traces and reconstruct an idea of what the previous lives of the

city were like. The authors of Unearthing

Gotham , Anne-Marie Cantwell and Diana diZerega Wall, have gone a step further: Their book

examines the entire record of what’s been left underneath the city for as long

as anyone has been living in these parts. It’s the archaeology of the place

that’s been called New York only for a very short time.

I tend to look first at the

index of any book that has one. When it’s a book about historical urban life,

in New York or elsewhere, I scan the index to see what’s been done about water,

the most basic human need and usually the first element to cause trouble in

urbanizing environments. Many books

purporting to explain how people lived ignore water; Un earthing Gotham does not. The authors’ discussion of the transition in the

mid-1800’sfromadisease-afflicted, ill-watered city to a Croton-flushed one is

concise and informative, especially regarding the domestic archaeological

record, which indicates that despite the availability of brand-new Croton water

mains in the early 1840’s, New Yorkers were slow to invest in service-pipe

hook-ups-a “trickle-in” acquisition of household water, first by the rich as a

curious luxury and eventually by the poor as a long-delayed agent of better

health. Satisfied that the water issue was well handled, I took in the entire

subterranean panorama assembled with easy style by Ms. Cantwell and Ms. Wall.

The general reader may be tempted to skip past the pre-European

chapters, but would miss the stunning 1950’s discoveries by an 11-year-old boy

and other weekend archaeologists of Paleoindian fluted points on garbage-strewn

Staten Island shores, proof that there have been native New Yorkers here since

the glaciers retreated 11,000 years ago. As comfortable discussing the city’s

oldest archaeological record as they are the politics of contemporary

archaeological retrieval, the authors present an even-handed account of the

complex 1990’s conflict over the 1700’s African burial ground discovered during

new office-tower excavations just north of City Hall Park.

There’s a slight overreach in the discussion of the huge bounty

of artifacts found a decade ago at the site of the mid-19th-century Five Points

slum, near Chinatown. The authors, both archaeology veterans and currently

anthropology professors, write that “being a madam was the only way that a

woman could hold a management position and even be an entrepreneur.” But the

archaeological record is plainly incomplete; we know that shopkeepers,

small-business owners, doctors, artists, teachers, writers and other female

professionals managed to make money without compromising their virtue.

The hundreds of thousands of

artifacts that made up the Five Points collection were housed temporarily in

the basement of 6 World Trade Center. They had been scheduled for permanent

transfer to the South Street Seaport Museum, but now they’re presumably

destroyed. Just 18 pieces that had been on display elsewhere survived,

including a temperance-themed teacup pictured in Unearthing Gotham .

The Trade Center site is destined to become a future chapter in

New York’s archaeology; it was already the location of the city’s first

non-native archaeology. Ever since wooden ship parts were excavated there in

1916, scholars have been debating whether they’re the remains of the Tijger , scuttled by Dutch sailors on

what was the lower Manhattan shoreline nearly 400 years ago. Ms. Wall and Ms.

Cantwell tell this legendary New York story with the same dexterity they bring

to dozens of sites in all the boroughs of the modern city, from the oceanfront

Brooklyn of slaughtered native Canarsees to the North Bronx gentility of Van

Cortlandt Mansion.

Unearthing Gotham is a

scholarly book for general readers, a thoroughly enjoyable narrative with

comprehensive notes, sources and index. It’s also seductively packaged:

unusually shaped, heavier than its modest thickness suggests, the cover art

serene, the title and chapter headings in a quirky typeface, the innards

arrayed with words on generous and varied white space, and an abundance of

images-archival and contemporary photos, classic and original artwork,

historical maps and explanatory diagrams. The book gives the physical sensation

of an object to be opened up, explored, dug into. All books are texts; this one

is treasure.


Koeppel, author of Water for Gotham: A History (Princeton), is at work on a book about the Erie Canal .

Digging the Urban Past: A Subterranean Panorama