Thursday, October 8, 2009

Hey, I Know That Tree! Extracting Social Understanding from Local Landscapes

The New York Times recently ran a story about a 600-year-old oak in Douglaston, NY that had to be cut down as a result of rot. Six hundred years (age estimated—determining the age of a tree is actually way more complicated than just counting rings) is a long time. If the estimates are correct, that tree was here long before the Dutch arrived and "purchased" this land from the Lenape—and if trees could talk, it would probably have a lots stories in the tree vein of "When I was your age, I walked 10 miles in the snow to get to school, barefoot and uphill, both ways" to share. There's been a mixed reaction to the removal of the tree. Clearly, it's a part of the neighborhood and local history—it has seen generations of children grow up—and the people who don't want to see it go are in fact incensed that it's being dismantled. Others seem to think that the tree has had a long life and is being removed with the closest thing to dignity one can afford a tree.

So why am I talking about this tree? Anthropology focuses on people, right? In fact, the cornerstone of anthropology, ethnography, makes people its primary subject. But more and more, anthropologists are looking to alternative sources for information regarding the social lives of the people whom they study. Landscapes are one such alternative. Much of social life is lived unconsciously—we know how to be in our societies, and don't spend much time deliberating over nuances of daily life. Landscapes offer a physical way to track the changes a population experiences. They are therefore a reflection of social world for specific populations, and can be looked to as a source of ethnographic information because they are constructed in two very real ways. First, landscapes are shaped by aesthetic and ideological histories to reflect interpretations and symbols of the people who live there. Second, they are shaped by the evolution of human labor. According to the former idea, the tree has been permitted to grow and thrive even as Douglaston grew and developed around it as a symbol of the neighborhood. And with regard to the latter idea, the tree is being removed because we can remove the tree instead of letting it rot naturally. So in theory, landscapes are not natural—at least they haven't been since humans have learned how to manipulate the environment. But this also is the reason landscapes are such rich repositories of social knowledge: they have been specifically crafted to have meanings.

Image: Wall Street 1867 (Public Domain). View looking East from Nassau St. toward the East River.

Image: The Buttonwood Tree on Wall Street (Public Domain), year unknown

New York recently marked the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage into New York Harbor and up the river that now bears his name. National Geographic's feature article for September explored some of the changes the land has undergone since Hudson marveled at the lush greenery—for example, I doubt you've encountered a stream in Times Square recently, or had to navigate around the polluted Collect where Foley Square now stands. And if we've ever had anything close to Elfreth's Alley in New York City, it's long gone now as is the Buttonwood Tree under which 24 brokers formed what we now know as the New York Stock Exchange. (The Museum of American Finance has a copy of the Buttonwood Agreement here.)

Image: NY Harbor, 2009. Picture taken from Battery Park. It was a windy day and the surf was rather rough. The National Geographic article mentions that Hudson found the water to be "faire." In Hudson's time, this shot would not have been possible—the park was built on landfill in the 1800s. And yes, that is Lady Liberty in the distance. She was unveiled in 1886.

Of course, New York has a rich history in this regard. However, unlike places like Philly and DC, it's a not a place that really markets that history. Instead, more in keeping with the personality of the city, culture and history often get rolled into progress and are repurposed—cobblestones get paved over, buildings from the 1830s (such as 213 Pearl St.) are turned into parking garages, and so on. (You can read more about 213 Pearl St. here and here.) So while we might know that Captain Kidd was a resident of what we now call the downtown area, an office building now stands where his home once was. (Hey, at least you don't have to pay admission to see the office building!)

Image: An office building now stands at the site of the fearsome Captain Kidd's home in Hanover Square.

The island has been stretched, repaved, and rebuilt countless times. New York City is constantly reinventing itself to match the ever-changing population. This map provides a look at how the actual shape of Manhattan has developed over the years. (Natural coastline? Fugettaboutit! New Yorkers—particularly those downtown—are walking on ancient trash heaps in some places! Use the "Vertical Scroll" to see what I mean.) But just as the Old Oak of Douglaston will pass into memory, so too have many of the changes the city has undergone passed from the collective consciousness—and really, we can't remember everything or there'd be no need for history. But there are clues if you're willing to look—and what we have left with can tell us the story of Manhattan's development.

Image: Intersection of Water St. and Wall, 2009. This spot once marked the end of the wall constructed here—and the end of the island. View looking east toward the water.

Image: The East River, 2009. I had to walk an additional two blocks after taking the picture above to reach the water's edge, when I would have been standing on the water's edge at Wall and Water in 1609.

Image: Activity on the East River. 

The three images above provide a good example of the expansion the city has undergone. We've grown the equivalent of two whole blocks in this particular area! The "missing" land was filled in with shells (from the river) and landfill as the colony grew. We diminished the span of the river, but this did nothing to reduce it's importance in travel and commerce. In Activity on the East River, a ferry enters the shot from the right, with active Brooklyn shipping docks in the background. In the images below, we can see the same type of expansion.

Image: Looking west on Wall St. toward Trinity Church.

Image: A bit dark, but always welcoming, Trinity Church once marked the other end of the island. Life now extends well beyond the church—you can see buildings in progress in the background. Corner of Nassau St. and Wall St., 2009.

Downtown does not always follow the neat grids that outline the rest of the city. The streets follow the original lay of the land, twisting and turning at odd angles to reflect the paths people traveled to accommodate the small streams that were common to the area. And since the first settlers did not arrive with automobiles, most streets are only wide enough to permit carts to pass.

Image: Tourist map of the downtown area. Note how the streets deviate from the grid pattern found elsewhere in the city.

Image: Pearl Street, 2009. Pearl Street was once nothing more than a dirt path. It got its name when it was lined with shells. Instead of cars, you would have been more likely to see traffic jams with livestock and wooden carts.

Image: Exchange Street, 2009. Between William St. and Hanover Sq. Short "alleys" like this are common to the area. Their hodgepodge arrangement remind us that space was at a premium even in the early days of the colony. Today, this road is not really used (except for parking).

Despite the constant march forward, sometimes we do remember. There are still cobblestone streets downtown, and Wall Street just completed a massive project to repave portions of the street with cobblestones—I've heard that it was done for monetary reasons (film permits for cobblestone streets bring higher revenue than film permits for regular paved streets), but it is a nice reminder of the past. Of course, the days when carts trundled up the dirt track that would become a financial pulse in the global economy are long gone, but it forces us to recognize an element of our history.

Image: Wall Street, 2009. Re-cobbling of Wall Street.

There are some striking symbols here that have survived the passing of time to become integral to the landscape of downtown New York City, such as Wall Street, Trinity Church, and the reappearance of the cobblestones. There is also evidence of humanity's progression in the forced expansion of the island. Clearly a relationship must exist between the social world and the physical one—a relationship that lives on even after the removal of an icon, as in the case of the Douglaston Oak. If we can understand anything from these photos, it's that the removal of the oak will have a profound effect on the community. Something may be built where that oak once stood, with time the relationship residents of Douglaston have with their neighborhood will shift, and the oak will pass into the annals of history.

Our needs for growth and space have not changed much since the early days of the colony—who knows how we will shift the landscape to meet them in the coming days.

Has your neighborhood changed over the years? What landmarks from your social world have been removed and/or replaced? Chime in below!

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