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NYC: Masking Demographics

Last summer I went to NYC with my best friend Sarah as many people do to sightsee, tour the museum’s shop, and catch a Broadway show. Unlike most people, however, Sarah and I wanted to walk everywhere we went, and I mean everywhere. We walked from The Met (Metropolitan Museum of Art) all the way down to Battery Park. We went to SOHO, Little Italy, The World Trade Center Memorial, Chinatown. While there are a million people in NYC, you don’t stop and ask for directions, and as my mother kept fretting to me “don’t walk staring at a map.” Navigation was difficult and one of the most troublesome issues we had when walking was some streets ended with a building instead of continuing in the grid pattern most do. These buildings at the end of the road isolated one street from the next and it felt as though we were suddenly confined when we realized that there was no way outward at the end of the road.

When Dr. McCoy mentioned that the African Burial Ground National Monument was on the lower end of Manhattan I kept thinking “How did I miss it?” after it felt like I had walked the entire island. But, after remembering how it felt to move among the buildings laid out in a grid pattern and that they hid more than the revealed. NYC from its architecture is very dense and in that sort of demographic structures serve to mask one building or street from the next. In class it dawned on me I probably would never have found the memorial without having the destination in mind. And even if I walked right past it I might not have recognized what I was looking at.

I want to further elaborate on NYC’s demographic being a mask. I remember after hurricane Sandy hit NYC there was a passive aggressive article I read and the opening lines were something like “Gee no wonder NYC keeps getting slammed with one thing after another from Mother Nature, it’s almost as if she’s talking vengeance for all of the African American gravesites disturbed and destroyed when NYC was constructed.” NYC and its structures were basically a mask, not only physically covering up the African American gravesite but also mentally removing it from people’s minds. My memory took me back to when Dr. McCoy asked the prompt “What happens when we don’t have records?” When we don’t have records, such as in this case people turn into numbers, either written on documents or marked on mass memorials and become forgotten. National Park Service for the African Burial Ground National Monument wrote: “Civic engagement led to the ancestral remains’ reinterment within the original site of rediscovery.” Without this collective action from people, there may not have been a memorial, or even the information available to provide some semblance of a memory of those who were buried there.

One last thing about the importance of naming and memory and forgetting, the World Trade Center Memorial has the names cut into the metal surrounding the footprints of the towers. I think it’s it a sharp contrast to have all the victims names who died in the attack on 9/11 physically written out to keep their memory alive, while on the African National Monument Memorial the number of 15,000 people who it commemorates. As Colson Whitehead writes in relation to memory and the importance of documentation in Zone One if “You’re not in the system. You might as well not exist.”

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