The current historic interpretation and understanding of Christopher Columbus stands as complicated. To put it mildly.
Controversy aside, Christopher Columbus figured prominently in the formation of a uniquely American cultural identity. This seems to be forgotten today amid our debates over identity politics and historical grievances.
Proof: Washington Irving, the writer with whom I’ve been spending an inordinate amount of time, penned a multi-volume biography of Columbus. Continue reading →
During my early adulthood, I lived in Philadelphia and spent a majority of my leisure time visiting historic sites, cemeteries, and museums. I loved learning about colonial and early America. I loved living in a place where I could see, hear, and even touch history.
Recently, a local historian and lifelong Jersey City resident shared with me his joyous surprise upon discovering a cache of newspaper articles concerning a prominent late-nineteenth-century resident of his neighborhood and this resident’s failed attempt to sell his private park to the Jersey City government. This nineteenth-century gentleman was Bernard Vetterlain.
Bernard Vetterlain earned his fortune in tobacco sales and lived near today’s Summit Avenue and Astor Place in Jersey City until 1870. In addition to a grand home and estate, Vetterlain owned a private park in the neighborhood. That’s right, a private park. Reportedly, this park was a beautiful, soothing sanctuary with gravel paths, flower gardens, well-placed benches, and a Japanese waterfall. This was Jersey City’s Gramercy Park.
Shortly after municipal consolidation formed Jersey City in 1870, Vetterlain offered to sell the newly organized city government his park for a purportedly fair price. After much haggling and discussion, the city ultimately declined. After Vetterlain’s death, developers purchased his Jersey City property from his heirs and unceremoniously chopped up the land into multiple lots for home building. Vetterlain’s park was lost. A single watercolor by an obscure Hudson County artist, August Will, stands as the only pictorial evidence of the park. (For the record, I have not seen this painting.)
A few weeks ago, my friend and I spent a Sunday morning documenting a gargantuan industrial property situated on the borderlands between Essex and Hudson Counties, New Jersey. We snapped hundreds of photographs, jotted down notes, and exchanged innumerable observations. Recently, we transformed our creative material into an article submitted to a very niche and captivating publication. Fingers crossed.
During our urban archaeological exploration and our writing efforts, we realized that such mothballed industrial and institutional sites risk being lost to history and the collective imagination. Such places are often brutal, ugly, unwieldy, and highly contaminated, if not outright toxic, yet they embody a vanishing way of life and work. In more vibrant, affluent localities, the better preserved or historically landmarked structures might be rehabbed and converted into offices, businesses, apartments, work spaces, or even light industrial centers.
DUMBO, Brooklyn has transitioned from a shipping and industrial engine into a neighborhood of pricey real estate, tech firms, trendy nightlife, and cutting edge culture. In Sunset Park, Brooklyn, the Brooklyn Army Terminal has blossomed as an anchor for innovative light industry in the city. However, for every such case, a huge swath of a struggling city remains blighted by long empty warehouses, factories, and workshops. Think Detroit or small cities in Pennsylvania.
My previous post discussed the Ballantine House in Newark, New Jersey and touched upon the fascination and attraction of such spaces. Why do people decide to spend their leisure time or vacations visiting historic neighborhoods and sites, especially houses and homes? Aren’t they just moldy, musty aging places full of shadows of (largely) dead rich white men and their families? Little more than monuments to prejudice, greed, and excess?
In a very narrow and rather sad and cynical way, I suppose that the answers must be: yes and yes. Such places are “old” and they are preserves of past times and possibly lost customs. They were often—yet certainly not always—constructed for Americans of a certain social and economic status. A qualification is necessary: not all historic homes once belonged to robber barons, plantation owners, and other problematic figures from our local, regional, or national history. For instance, the Tenement Museum, a former … well … tenement, is one of the more visited museums and historic sites in New York City. Tours usually require reservations well in advance.