News
07.13.2004
Invisible Memorial
After seven years of fits and starts, the United States General Services Administrationns project to memorialize downtownns African Burial Ground is taking off again. But does the latest series of public forums really mean the process is back on track? Deborah Grossberg investigates.

After seven years of fits and starts, the United States General Services Administration's project to memorialize downtown's African Burial Ground is taking off again. But does the latest series of public forums really mean the process is back on track? Deborah Grossberg investigates.

Although the United States General Services Administration (GSA) has received high honors in recent months from the National Building Museum and the American Architectural Foundation for its design achievements, the organization stands accused by some New Yorkers of dropping the ball on a crucial project close to home: the African Burial Ground Memorial. After the high-profile discovery of the historic site nearly 15 years ago and the announcement of an RFP for a memorial design in 1997, the project has fallen off the GSA's and the public's radar. Basically, the GSA's been on vacation on this project,, said Mabel Wilson, an architect on the finalist team GroundWorks, whose design was selected along with four others in February 2003.

City councilmember Charles Barron, an active participant on the Committee of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground, voiced his dissatisfaction more forcefully: The GSA has been showing us the same kind of arrogance and disrespect as it displayed at the beginning of this project..

On a map from 1763 (left), a rectangular 6-acre strip just north of the Commons today's City Hall Parkkis labeled Negro Burial Ground..

Acknowledging that the memorial was, in the words of GSA chief of staff Karl Reichelt, long overdue,, the GSA stepped up the pace on the project last year. In September, the organization brought in the National Parks Service (NPS) as a consultant and public liaison, a role it often plays in work involving national historic landmarks. (The African Burial Ground was designated a landmark in 1993.) We're not necessarily in the business of building memorials,, said Mark Dremel, project manager for the African Burial Ground at the GSA. NPS knows monuments and memorials. They're taking the lead on this.. Dennis Montagna of NPS agreed. The GSA ran the competition much like its arts and architecture program, which primarily contracts design and construction services and commissions works of art for federal buildings,, he said. At a certain point the competition just ground to a halt.. NPS got the ball rolling in May, facilitating two small public workshops as a prelude to five larger, if under-publicized, forums held at schools, churches, and community centers in each borough in mid-June. The forums in turn set in motion a six-week revision process to be followed by final submissions and the selection of a winner, though the GSA has not set dates for those milestones. The memorial is slated for completion in December 2005, according to the GSA.

The African Burial Ground project fell into the GSA's hands in 1989 while it was conducting a cultural site survey for a federal office building at the corner of Broadway and Duane Street. The study, mandated by the 1966 Historic Preservation Act, uncovered 18th-century maps depicting a forgotten African graveyard occupying 6 acres just north of City Hall Parkkknown in colonial times as the Commonsscutting through the south side of the GSA's building site.

The find reversed centuries of hidden history for New York's African-American community. The African Burial Ground proved that Harlem is not the only black New York,, said Eustace Pilgrim, director of graphics at the Department of City Planning and one of the memorial finalists.

Preserved under 20 feet of landfill, the African Burial Ground occupies what was once a desolate ravine outside city limits. In the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and English settlers denied Africans permission to bury their dead in church graveyards within the city proper, forcing them to use this out-of-the-way, undesirable strip of land. Archaeologists estimate that approximately 20,000 Africans, both enslaved and free, were buried on the site from the late 1600s to 1794, when the burial ground was closed. Memories of its existence slowly faded after Dutch-Americans brought the site to grade in the early 1800s. In 1991 the GSA began archaeological site testing. The African-American community, already frustrated at its exclusion from the process, became enraged when The New York Times reported that the GSA planned to excavate the burial ground with the so-called coroner's method, a technique consisting of digging up graves with a backhoe. Waging a grassroots campaign, activists campaigned for increased oversight. In December 1991 Senator David A. Paterson established a task force to supervise the project. Soon thereafter, the GSA signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission outlining its responsibilities to the African Burial Ground, including the construction of a memorial on the site.

The African Burial Ground Memorial's five finalist designs attempt to tread lightly on a site many consider sacred.

At left & below: GroundWorks proposes greening the site, save a small clearing for a lanternlike spirit catcher,, a chamber for contemplation and mourning.

Below to bottom of page: Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis have created a sloped berm with a curved wall adorned with Yoruba-inspired terracotta faces;

McKissack & McKissack's slave ship tells a literal tale of suffering;

Joseph DePace's proposal refers to African burial practices;

Rodney Leon draws from African architecture with its spiral path leading to a libation chamber.

The GSA completed construction of its $276 million building at 290 Broadway on a piece of the site deemed by archaeologists to contain no human remains in 1995. The memorial project was a mitigation of our responsibility for constructing a building on the burial ground site,, said GSA's Dremel. The MOA also required the GSA to fund a research project to study human remains removed from the site. Dr. Michael Blakey of Howard University led the research team whose findings have provided new insight into the brutal conditions of slavery in colonial New York City, which was the second-largest slave port in the U.S. in the 18th century, after Charleston, South Carolina. At the time, 10 to 20 percent of the city's population was of African descent. To date, the GSA has spent $30 million on archaeological and anthropological research. Dremel blamed the memorial competition's holdup on the lengthy research being conducted at Howard. But many wonder why the memorial project could not have gone forward at the same time as the research, as was originally planned. The initial RFP asked us to accommodate a future reinterment of human remains and artifacts,, said architect and finalist Joseph DePace. Reburial of the remains on the site took place at a ceremony last October. Now that the remains are back in the ground it's unclear whether further construction on this site poses the possibility of some kind of disrespect,, said DePace.

Tender treatment of the site, which many community members see as sacred, was a hot topic at the June forums. But dialogue was repeatedly bogged down by questions that were more suitable for a GSA delegate than the newly appointed NPS representative and designers who were present at the meetings. Community members also expressed disappointment at the forums' poor attendance, claiming they had not been well organized. Forums drew between 20 and 80 people in auditoriums capable of seating hundreds.

At the June 14 forum in Brooklyn, attendees debated whether building on the site would be sacrilegious. Ollie McLean of the Descendants of the African Burial Ground asserted, We don't build on a sacred cemetery. We want a green, landscaped space with an eternal flame on that land.. As an alternative, McLean suggested seizing abutting properties by eminent domain, one for the memorial and the other for a museum dedicated to African-American history. In Brooklyn, we're displacing thousands for a ballpark. It's the least GSA can do..

Rodney Leon, a finalist and principal of AARRIS Architects, looked at the issue differently. There's a difference between an occupied building and a memorial. The real question is how do you create a gravestone for 20,000 anonymous people? How do you undo their anonymity?? Leon derived his design's sequence of monumental formssa spiral ramp, a circular gathering space, and a triangular tapering towerrfrom West and North African architecture. The forms create a visible contrast against the grid of the city,, said Leon.

Other forum participants supported building on the site, arguing for the use of references to African burial practices. Said one, If you're looking for the place where we put buildings on our dead, then you'll find it in Africa.. The same speaker cited Egyptian pyramids and Dogon burials within the walls of houses as examples. DePace agreed, arguing, Paradoxically, [the Descendants' proposals] are referencing European burial practices.. DePace's project uses African symbols and materials like a pyramidal perimeter fence woven from copper strips and a groundcover of crushed white oyster shells, used to decorate graves in West Africa to symbolize the spirit living on the sea. Our design is respectful of the site's sacred nature, touching lightly on the ground,, he said. Eustace Pilgrim and Christopher Davis, a team of artists, also emphasized a light touch with a design that features a curved pathway dividing a landscaped berm from a reflecting pool.

Herbert Wilson, III, of McKissack & McKissack, one of the finalists and principal of the oldest minority-owned architecture firm in the nation, defended his team's plan to put a more substantial building on the site. We need to mark the site with a symbol that stands out for years and is emblematic of lives lost.. His firm's project references the middle passage with a ribbed structure in the form of a slave ship surrounded by reflecting pools, waterfalls, and a sound installation of screams meant to recall the terror of slaves flung overboard.

Constructive public design dialogues notwithstanding, the projecttnow in its seventh yearrremains crippled by lack of managerial continuity. Consistency has been an issue,, conceded Dr. Sherrill D. Wilson, director of the Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground (OPEI), an informational center funded by GSA. We're the only functioning part of the project that's been here from the beginning..

Adding to the confusion is the issue of the project's budget, which, according to the GSA, may get a boost from its initial cap of $1 million to account for inflation. But GSA has not released an estimate of the exact increase, forcing finalists to guess for themselves. As it stands, some hope for $2.5 million while others are attempting to stay within the original budget. Mabel Wilson sees the project's delays as unsurprising continuations of the site's history of invisibility. Slavery is the blind spot in America's eye,, said Wilson. The government and the general public don't see this site as visible and relevant..

Wilson intends to combat the site's invisibility by greening the memorial site as well as the landscape surrounding the buildings on the entire burial ground. The centerpiece of her team's project, a glowing, tapered glass shelter, appears in a clearing within the larger grove. Wilson said, Though the plan goes beyond the scope of the competition, it's a relatively feasible way to make visible an area of the city whose history has been systematically erased and forgotten..

With no date set for the announcement of the winning design, no jury publicly named, no clear budget, and no disclosure of what the remainder of the memorial-building process would entail, it remains to be seen whether the GSA and the NPS will give the African Burial Ground Memorial the visibility it deserves.

Deborah Grossberg is an assistant editor at AN.

Deborah Grossberg