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Memories of the Way We Were and Are

Long time readers of my posts may recall the importance of Melanie Griffith in “Working Girl.” Her explanation of how she originated the idea for the corporate merger is a classic expression of the serendipity of the unexpected juxtaposition leading to thinking.

The eureka moment occurs not when one expects it but when things click in one’s mind. That’s why I enjoy thumbing through a newspaper rather than simply extracting predetermined information from the web – you never know what connections will be made…nor do the editors of the newspaper who are examining each article in isolation.

A pleasant surprise occurred in the October 9, 2014, issue of the New York Times when four separate stories turned out to be part of a single story if one stopped and thought about it. It’s a little like the blind people and the elephant with the people not realizing they are touching the same animal. Thus even the infamous one-eyed person in the land of the blind can see what they can’t.

The first part of this “elephant” in chronological order was not about New York. It was a story about cave paintings in Indonesia being among the oldest human paintings known. What is important here is that the painters painted their hands. So approximately 40,000 years ago people were finger-painting their hands on rock walls just as kids still do today in school, camp, and elsewhere. The memory they left to posterity is of their hands.

With the second article, the stakes are more serious. It seems that Donald Trump was building something in Manhattan when the dreaded event in construction occurred: the uncovering of human bodies. Four burial vaults were discovered and nearly 200 bodies of the Spring Street Presbyterian Church were relocated for reburial at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. A memorial service was held on October 19 at the First Presbyterian Church on 5th Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets. Ironically, the remains have been researched by two upstate scholars: Shannon A. Novak, as associate professor of anthropology at Syracuse and Thomas Crist of Utica College.

This discovery helped fill a gap in church history. According to David Pultz, the church archivist, “The church’s history had been forgotten, like the vaults had been forgotten.” The history he referred to is the abolitionism of the church. Beginning in 1820 when slavery was still legal in New York, the Spring Street Presbyterian Church began admitting blacks with full membership. One should recall that New York already included many free blacks in its population. The church was nearly demolished in the race riots of 1834.

Almost 130 years later, the Presbytery of the City of New York closed the struggling church and after the abandoned building burned in 1966 it became a parking lot. Enter Donald Trump and in 2006 the first bodies were found. One body was even linked to a miniature watercolor portrait of him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This discovery touches upon a number or related issues in local history and one wonders if now that it has been discovered will it be forgotten again or will it become part of local curriculum or path through history in some way?

For the third article, we leave New York to see if there is life on Mars…Mars, Nebraska, that is. This 19th century community never really made it and vanished like so many other small communities where the railroad didn’t stop and highways bypassed it. Professor of History M.J. Morgan at Kansas State University estimates there are 9,000 such forgotten towns in the state. This one is kept alive barely by D. R. Haskin, a great-great-grandson of the founder who diligently works to write about the life of the former settlement while operating a campsite there. His mission is “To put Mars back on the map.”

Sometimes memories are deliberate and not accidental. The final piece of this journey in the day of a newspaper is the opening of a time capsule from May 23, 1914 in Manhattan. It marked the tricentennial of the founding of a Dutch trading post commemorated by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association. According to Nick Yablon, associate professor at the University of Iowa and author of the forthcoming The Birth of the Time Capsule,

On October 11, 1614, the Dutch Republic granted a charter and a three-year fur trading monopoly to the New Netherland Company — the first official reference to “New Netherland.” It was this event that the Wall Street merchants were celebrating in 1914.

Here is an event for newly-forming Lower Manhattan Historical Society to commemorate. Unfortunately the quadricentennial has passed but next October 11 can be the honorary 400th anniversary just as the 400th anniversary of Columbus was celebrated at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

The time capsule was supposed to be opened on May 22, 1974, on the bicentennial of the drafting at the old Merchants Coffee House of a declaration calling for the “virtuous and spirited union” of the British colonies. A plaque unveiled hailing “The Birthplace of Our Union” apparently vanished after the Federal Sugar Refining Company Building at 91 Wall Street was destroyed.

The time capsule was entrusted to the New-York Historical Society which stored it in the same warehouse used by the Federal Government for the Ark of Covenant. It was rediscovered in 1998 by Margi Hofer, the society’s curator of decorative arts, and was opened just recently under the direction of Louise Mirrer, the society president. The results were not earthshattering. Yablon commented, “disappointment is the most common response to time capsule openings.”

Why did people fingerpaint their hands around 40,000 years ago?

Why does a great-great-grandson dedicate himself to bringing life back to Mars?

Why do people create time capsules, remember and forget anniversaries?

Why do we rebury people long dead and hold memorial services for them?

We are a story-telling species who exist in four dimensions. We reach out to the future and hope people will remember our present that has become their past. Even the Sphinx was buried for centuries before being rediscovered and the name of Kaphre, its builder lives on. We want our name to be remembered, for our lives to have counted, for us to have mattered and we honor those who came before us and we hope will be honored by those who come after us. A people without stories are a people who have vanished. As New Yorkers, what stories should we tell in our schools, our holidays, and in our commemorations about the history of our state that we hope will be remembered?


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