As historical archaeologists we use various resources and tools to recover the past. Urban archaeologists often have access to a wide range of materials to help us understand the landscape. Among them are maps, lithographs, and a personal favorite – photographs.
The urban landscape, like history, is dynamic. If we look closely we can see remnants of the past throughout the cityscape. Professional, avocational and amateur photographers have unknowingly created a document of NYC’s landscape history; of the expansion and development of the cityscape. This is now even more widespread with the advent of social media.
Despite a plethora of images, each photograph is unique. The perspective of every photograph is unique to the photographer. Being an archaeologist has influenced my photography as I find myself taking photos of architectural remnants in the midst of development. Or, sometimes documenting the construction of a skyscraper throughout the course of a single project.
Brooklyn is my hometown and I’ve watched Downtown Brooklyn undergo dramatic changes in recent years. Today the Brooklyn waterfront is a destination for both residents and tourists as Brooklyn Bridge Park has re-shaped the landscape. I became familiar with Brooklyn Bridge Park when I began archaeological testing on the project in 2008.
Prior to development much of this area was part of the East River. Historic maps show that landfilling and development began at the foot of Fulton Street, then called Ferry Road, in the18th century. By the time of the American Revolution this section of Brooklyn’s waterfront housed a marketplace with slaughterhouses, a brewery and distillery, inns and taverns and ferries actively crossed the river. Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn provides a detailed glimpse of the area in the early 19th century.
Archaeological excavation in advance of Brooklyn Bridge Park occurred on both ends of the park. Throughout the proposed park a range of 19th century industrial foundations were exposed. If the area were stripped of 3’ the entire 19th century landscape would have been visible.
Most visually dramatic was the Jewell Milling Company complex adjacent to the Brooklyn Bridge at the corner of Old Fulton and Furman Street. The Jewell Milling Company, later Brooklyn City Flour Mill, began operating on the site in the 1850s continuing through the 1920s. In addition to the building foundations there was evidence of the mill’s mechanics, and infrastructure that may have regulated the approach of the East River’s tide.
Photographs show the many façades of this Brooklyn street corner that once housed a flour mill in the 19th century. It was followed by shipping ports in the early 20th century; it was a parking lot when fellow archaeologist Ralph Solecki worked nearby in the 1970s; and it became an archaeological site in 2008.
As a photographer who likes to go back and see the changes to former project areas Brooklyn Bridge Park is one of the more dramatic examples of a changing New York City. NYC has always been a future focused it is a city where you can have a new skyline in less than a decade.
To be continued…
A key to the Francis Guy’s Winter Scene in Brooklyn – https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/francis_guy
The Brooklyn Bridge Park Archaeology Report –
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Brooklyn: Fulton Street – Furman Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1880. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-cff8-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99
Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, The New York Public Library. “Brooklyn: Furman Street – William Street” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1934. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47dc-d0e6-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99