Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Magnificent Maps: Snow, Taxi Cabs, Road Kills, Factory Farming, More Crime!, Victorian Infographics, and the Service Ecology of a City

“The Island satirises the London-centric view of the English capital and its commuter towns as independent from the rest of the country.”  From the exhibit “Magnificent Maps” at the British Library

Magnificent Maps: Snow, Taxi cabs, Road Kills, Factory Farming, More Crime!, Victorian Infographics, and the Service Ecology of a City (to name but a few......).

Oh my, what a mélange!  OK, so none of these topics is connected to any of the others in any way, other than they are all links to cool maps that you guys have sent to me here-lately.  It’s a nice snowy day (where I am, at least!) so a great day to look at cool maps. 

Snow Maps - NYC

OK, folks, the links are coming fast and furious!  This just in from Holly Porter-Morgan, and it's very pertinent to our snowy conditions today.  Take a look, and if the road clearing is bad in your neighborhood, now you have a way to "mappily" address it.  JAM

“Thinking about VGI and interactive maps today and I found some great and very timely examples online.  Feel free to send around!” 

Starting off, we have the official NYC gov effort.

NYC Snow Update

The NYC map is actually the nicest looking, but that may just be my opinion, because so many interactive maps/mash-ups use Google Maps these days and NYC created their own interactive map (not that the rest of us have the time or money to do that).  This map offers different symbol styles and colors for different reported problems.  It features three categories for a report submission:  Stuck vehicle, Street not clear of snow, and Street clear of Snow.  On the down side, all categories refer to points and none to lines (which are shown in the third map listed).  

Mapping Snow Removal in Brooklyn
Has your street been cleared?

I found this on Brooklyn Vegan under the link ‘Report your Brooklyn Snow Problems- Plot them on an Interactive Map. It won’t get your street plowed any faster, but it might make your feel better’.

This interactive map built on the Google Maps interface, which appears to remain active, displays a point for every submitted problem report.  The map viewer can display the reports all in red  (All Categories)  or choose from the various other point colors to see different types of problems reported:   Failure to Remove Snow Reports (purple) ,  Stalled Vehicles & Other Problems Reports (blue) , and Time of Snow Removal Reports (brown).

 Also, going back to the snowstorm just after Christmas, there is the “Roadify Plowed Street Map NYC Dec 2010”, which is still live.

Another map built on the Google Maps interface, the page stated ‘edit the map or tell us and we'll do it for you. Just email or tweet @roadify’.   Kudos to the creators for using Twitter as a way to get information for the map.  Roads that were reported as not plowed were indicated in red, with a few plowed roads indicated in green.  This map went live on Dec 28th and was last updated on Dec. 30th.

Victorian Infographics

Tinted drawing showing the comparative lengths of rivers and heights of mountains worldwide. In: 'General Atlas Of The World: Containing Upwards Of Seventy Maps,' by Adam & Charles Black, Sidney Hall and William Hughes, 1854; published in Edinburgh by A & C Black.

Here is something else to keep you guys occupied and amused on this snowy afternoon - Victorian infographics!  Lesley Kunikis just sent these to me, and they are gorgeous and complicated examples of how crazy people can get graphically. These people had all the patience in the world to construct these diagrams.   Check them out - they are really something! 

“Here are links regarding Victorian infographics... pretty cool!”

(scroll down to the earth's crust and mountain graphics on this page):

Taxi cab travel maps/graphics/diagrams/whatever! VISUALIZATIONS! 

And here’s some more!

One-Hour of NYC Taxi Trips in One Graphic

From Matthew Croswell:
“Hey Map Monkey,
This is Matt Croswell (work email). I came across this interesting graphic. Although it is not your traditional map, a group mapped taxi trips between 4-5 PM in Manhattan. Pretty interesting, especially the amount of trips within the same neighborhood.

Note to those of you who don't ride in taxis often: between 4 and 5 PM is the dead zone in trying to get a taxi.  4 PM is when the drivers' shifts change, and taxis in Manhattan are scarcer than hens' teeth!  

Also check out this link to other cool taxi ridership maps:

The Service Ecology of a City:

From Amy Trexler:
“This website prevents me from doing work all day long.”

Leave it to a zany Dutchman to have a great design blog like this one!  Check out his posting called “Spaced Out in a Flat World,” too. 

Nutrire Milano (Feeding Milan) is also exploring the relationships between food systems, service innovation, and sustainable urban development. A project of the Slow Food Movement with Milan Polytechnic, Nutrire Milano also uses maps to highlight where there are gaps or blockages in the ways food is produced and distributed.

More Crime Maps!

And, just in from Carrie Beth Lasley (she is in New Orleans):

“The local paper, the Time-Picayune, has been running daily crime maps. This is part of the new Police Chief's effort to engage more with the public. Here's a link to one. They do it district-by-district every weekday on the Web.

Carrie Beth”

Factory Farms

From Dan Kulakowski:

“I thought this was a pretty cool map, and presented another reason for me to be happy to not live in the middle of the country.”;location:US;year:2007
However, Dan, New York State is not immune from the bad impacts of factory farming, either.  As one of the facts on the website states: “The nearly 213,000 dairy cows on factory-farm dairies in New York produce as much untreated manure as 47 million people -- two and a half times the population of New York.”  A sobering thought…and believe it or not, the amount of factory farming in NY State has increased quite significantly in the past 10 years, according to the charts on the web page.

Magnificent Maps

Detail of the Fra Mauro Map, part of the exhibit at the British Library
From Brian Morgan:

“Here's a cool online map exhibit from BBC 4 to spend some time exploring.  There's some really nice stuff in here, you might want to pass it along to students or anyone else who might enjoy it.”

This is where you can look in detail at the maps.

Very cool stuff!  Check out the “Explore Themes” function when you get to the individual maps, for instance Fra Mauro’s 1450 map of the world. 

And speaking of the good brother, Fra Mauro, before the spring term starts, and if you have nothing in particular to do to while away the hours, I very much recommend a tiny little book called “A Mapmaker’s Dream: The Meditations of Fra Mauro, Cartographer to the Court of Venice,” by James Cowan, 1996.  Very inspirational! 

This is the BBC video about the exhibit.

This is something called “MapTube,” sort of the “YouTube” of Maps!

Road Kills

From Holly Porter-Morgan:

“Please send on to the group if you find it relevant.”

This one is about the guy who is mapping road kills on thousands of miles of roads.  OK, now for those of you who have taken my fall class in environmental modeling and spatial analysis, you may remember one of the papers I tortured you with (oops!  I mean one of the scintillating papers you very willingly read and re-read multiple times) about the mitigation of highway road kills in the Canadian Rockies, and how the favorite paths of the various focal species were estimated by aspect, slope, etc., (remember “expected” versus “observed”?).  It seems this poor fellow doing this incredible road kill ground truthing work could benefit from parts of their approach. 

And, lastly, Katie Gill sent me this just tonight, which relates, by coincidence, to the same type of highway mitigation project.  In fact, one of the species they are most concerned about in this project, the lynx, was one of the focal species from the Canadian Rockies highway mitigation project.  Here is the link to all the design entries for the finalists.  Some are really innovative. 

One of the finalist’s entries in the competition.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Criminal Justice Mapping

Percent Change in Share of State Parole Population, 2002-2006, New Orleans Zip Codes, pre- and post-Katrina

Criminal Justice Mapping

OK, now I know the past couple of posts have been extra-specially long, so I am going to make this one short and sweet.  Never let it be said that the Map Monkey doesn’t know how to do “short”! 

Earlier this week, Chris Herrmann sent me a link to the Justice Mapping website, and it is worth taking a look.

They have conducted analyses (or should I say "justice mapping"?) for Arizona; Louisiana; New Jersey; Texas; Wichita, Kansas; New Haven, Connecticut; Gateshead, England; and of course, New York City.


Their web site says that they use maps to:
  • Reveal hidden patterns and realities that tables and charts leave unrecognized.
  • Create place-based measures of performance that build shared goals among separate agencies.
  • Provide compelling visualizations of policies that are easily understood by a wide variety of constituents.
Seems like all the right reasons to me! 

 This is the group that mapped the so-called "Million Dollar Blocks" a few years ago, which stirred up so much discussion and newspaper reporting, and brought this important issue to the attention of the public.  A million dollar block is a neighborhood or block with enough imprisoned residents that one million dollars or more is being spent on prison costs to incarcerate them.  In Brooklyn, NYC, for instance, some 35 blocks have this high concentration of prisoners. 
Map Source: The Village Voice, November 16, 2004, "Million Dollar Blocks: The Neighborhood Costs of America's Prison Boom"

They also maintain an interactive Justice Atlas at
Just click on a state, and then your county of interest.  Pretty cool! 

Friday, January 21, 2011

How the Other Half Lives: Tenement Life in Old New York

1899 Map of Manhattan’s Lower East Side/Chinatown/Little Italy areas – showing parts of the old Wards IV, V, VI, VII, VIII, X, and XIV, the epicenter of tenement geography, which included the notorious Five Points area.  Notice the symbols on the map indicating rail lines - these would have been steam locomotive-drawn surface transport (which still dangerously operated within the city), steam trains on elevated lines, or electric trains on trolley tracks – the first subways were not built until 1904, about 5 years after this map was published.

How the Other Half Lives – Studies Among the Tenements of New York

OK, I heard from a couple of you who vigorously objected to Jacob Riis’ 1890 photo essay book, “How the Other Half Lives,” being kept off the list on a technicality.  So I thought about it and realized that not only are the photographs incredible, and the accompanying text a gorgeous example of the muck-raking style of journalism popular in the late 19th century/early 20th century, but for the sheer influence factor alone in the court of public opinion as well as actual policy and program changes that were implemented to benefit the poor, due to Riis’ expose of living conditions in NYC’s slums, we could not in good conscience leave the book off the list!

The book is available in a new (2010) edition with some words by a Harvard historian, and some supplemental materials which have apparently not been published previously.  I myself have not yet seen this edition, but it seems excellent. 

I also found a completely on-line edition of the original text and photos, at

 Bird’s eye view of a tenement block – this is just one block, bounded on the four outer sides by streets.  There are no internal streets: one accessed the interior buildings either via a maze of alleyways or by going through the first floor hallways of the front buildings to access the rear courtyards (which used to be backyards, before people got greedy and starting sticking more housing back there).

Plan of typical tenement flats - Notice (in addition to most of the rooms having no windows for light and ventilation – imagine living through a NYC summer without access to fresh air!) there were no bathrooms or actual kitchens in the apartments.  Cooking would have been done in the fireplace or coal stove in the living room.  Water for cooking and washing would have been brought up in buckets from a stand pipe in the backyard that served dozens of families, or a public water pump down the street. (Imagine living in a 6th-floor walk-up and having to haul gallons of water every day upstairs – 1 gallon equals 8 pounds).  Privies or latrines for the entire building (and whomever else!) would have been in the basement or backyard, and be basically outhouses (not flush toilets, obviously!) without running water, just a pit.  These were filthy and also dangerous places, so often people used chamber pots instead, especially at night, and it was common-place practice to toss the contents out the windows.  

And to get an even more up close and personal feel for the era, visit the Tenement Museum, on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side.

When the Map Monkey has more time, I will expound in greater length on the evolution of the tenement form in a future blog posting. 

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The African Burial Grounds: An Update and Reflections

Partial view of the Maerschalck Map (1763), indicating the location of the “Negroes Burying Ground” (from Stokes, Iconography of Manhattan Island, Vol. 1).

The African Burial Grounds: An Update and Some Reflections

In 1991, excavation began for a new $290 million dollar Federal office building on Duane Street and Broadway in lower Manhattan.  But shortly after breaking ground, construction work was thrown into a turmoil, and ultimately was temporarily halted, when evidence of human remains was found below the surface of the site, which had not previously been excavated for development to that depth.  They had unearthed what has since been determined to be the largest colonial-era cemetery for enslaved African people in America.  There then followed many tense months of negotiation, public outreach, investigation, reporting, editorializing, vitriol, lots of passionate expounding, historical research, cost-benefit analyses, legal review, compromise, and eventually, archaeological digging under extreme time pressure, all of which proved very controversial with a number of various political, religious, and cultural groups in NYC.

I thought it would be appropriate on this, the 20th anniversary of the “re-discovery” of the graveyard, now called the African Burial Grounds (ABG), to offer a brief history of the site, an update on the current status of graveyard, and to excerpt some written reflections that I made 20 years ago on the occasion of my  visit to the site while the archaeological dig was in full swing.  I consider my visit to the site to be one of the highlights of the decade for me, and a supreme privilege. 

The African Burial Grounds National Monument, designated in 1993.
Source: National Parks Service. 

            The African Burial Grounds, or “Negroes Burying Ground,” as it was called back then, appears on several well-known maps of the 18th century, so it is somewhat surprising that it was so completely forgotten about or ignored in the intervening years.  It is estimated that the burial grounds occupied roughly 7 acres, and contain up to 20,000 interments, mainly people of African birth or descent, most of whom had been transported to NYC involuntarily as slaves, either directly from Africa, or with an intermediate stop of indeterminate duration in the West Indies, or were born here in bondage.  There were also a number of free black people buried here, since during the Dutch governance of the city about half of the black people living here were free or “half-free.”  The Federal Building site is only one small corner of the original ABG, containing perhaps 450 graves.  The remainder of the graves still lies, some disturbed and some undisturbed, underneath what are now streets, courthouses, office buildings, and retail stores in the City Hall/Financial District of Lower Manhattan.  The burials took place mainly in the 17th and 18th centuries, when this area was outside of the city limits proper (above Wall Street).  Black people were not allowed to be buried in consecrated ground in church graveyards, even if they were Christian, nor were they permitted to be buried alongside white people.  This was true for both free black and enslaved people.  By 1800, the city was rapidly growing northward, and the swampy, low-lying site of the ABG was land-filled and platted for development. 

David Grim map, 1742, showing area near the Collect Pond as a site for the Punishment of Black people (note the hanging scene and burning-at-the-stake depiction on the map).  Source: The African Burial Ground Project, Howard University, Washington, DC, “New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report," Vol. I, 2006.

The Ratzer Plan, partial view, 1767, showing the types of noxious and dangerous land uses near the Collect Pond (“Fresh Water”) and the burial grounds – e.g., tanneries, powder houses, etc.  Source: The African Burial Ground Project, Howard University, Washington, DC, “New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report," Vol. I, 2006.

The Taylor-Roberts Map, 1797, showing the area near the Collect Pond as being already platted for development, if not already built upon.  Source: The African Burial Ground Project, Howard University, Washington, DC, “New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report," Vol. I, 2006.

Excerpt from my written reflections upon visiting the archaeological dig in 1992:

Some Thoughts on the Foley Square Burial Grounds (June 16, 1992)
            As I sat on the subway returning from the Foley Square archaeological site, I glanced down at my black clodhopper boots.  They were covered in a fine dusting of soft brown dirt.  This was not your typical hot-summer-in-the-city grime and grunge, nor your average walk-in-the-country mire-and-muck.  This was eighteenth century dirt, and as I contemplated the significance of that, a frisson of historic appreciation ran down my spine. 
            I realized, not for the first time, that the past means a lot to me, probably more than it means to many others.  This difference in values (in the sense of what one considers valuable) is always at the crux of the conflict between archaeologists and real estate developers.  But in the case of the Foley Square site, this conflict becomes heightened and more multi-faceted, because this is not an ordinary repository of antique house remains and remnants of everyday living, or even fragments of an historically significant building, like the Stadt Huys, New York’s original Town Hall.  Instead, the Foley Square site is part of a vast 18th century burial grounds, primarily for Black Americans, and as such its discovery and disturbance dredges up emotions and dilemmas in the public arena that archaeology, for better or worse, does not usually inspire. 
The disposition of human remains has become a sensitive issue in the scientific world, but among regular folk, feelings run particularly high when the bones in question might belong to one’s ancestors.  Many reputable museums and educational institutions have had to justify their analysis, destruction, and/or displays of human skeletons, and in certain well-publicized instances involving Native American remains, have had to relinquish these “artifacts” to the descendants of the disinterred.  Studies of burials and human remains can provide us with much information about demographics and the socio-economic condition of the population, through the data about disease, nutrition, and stature obtained through skeletal analysis.  The layout and surface appearance of the cemetery, and the presence and types of grave goods can tell us about the funeral customs and degree of acculturation in the populations.  In the case of groups that have, for one reason or another, “escaped” the historic record, cemetery investigation offers an opportunity to gain information which might otherwise e unobtainable. 
However, archaeologists, who in this country happen to be predominantly white, have often been accused of cultural insensitivity by people of color, tribal people, and non-Westerners, who cite as a prime example what appears to be their cavalier attitude and irreverence when dealing with the physical remains of non-white people, treating them as mere specimens.  After all, archaeologists do not usually go up to the 18th century graveyards of New England to dig up somebody’s great-great-grandmother to analyze her bones (although maybe they have!). 
And yet, within the “Black community,” which is of course far from monolithic, there are many differences of opinion.  One faction, comprised of ultra-religious people, tends to think of any disturbance of these graves as desecration and sacrilege, even in the pursuit of scientific and historic knowledge, while others are enthusiastic about studying the burials, looking forward to the window that will be opened on our understanding of Black New Yorkers in the 18th century.  Given the strategic and symbolic location of the burial site between City Hall and the Court Houses, it could bring recognition and prominence to the contributions of Black New Yorkers, and an understanding of the role they played in New York’s history.  The historic and cultural importance of the site is actually national in scope, when taking into account the number of burials, the age of the gravesites, and the new information it tells us about living conditions for Black people in the New World.
Most people know little about the long and rich history of Black people in New York.  This information gap includes, I would venture to say, even many Black New Yorkers, too.  This is perhaps to be expected.  After all, the majority of us, regardless of racial or ethnic background, can trace our ancestors’ arrival (or our own arrival) in New York only as far back as the late 19th century and up to the present.  Black New Yorkers’ history doesn’t start just with Harlem in the Jazz Age.  New York had a large Black slave population in the 17th, 18th, and even early 19th centuries, alongside a large free Black population.  In fact, New York was a capital of slavery, surpassing every city in colonial times in numbers of slaves, except Charleston, South Carolina.
In the 17th century, the Dutch began the first Black American community in the New Netherland province by capturing four African men from a Portuguese slave ship bound for Brazil.  The Dutch seemed to have a more enlightened view of slavery than their other European contemporaries, often considering Black people to be “half-free” and even allowing them to own their own land.  Cynics, however, would see this less as enlightened behavior and high moral virtues on the part of the Dutch than a pragmatic economic necessity. 
The Dutch were nothing else if not practical in business matters, their touted tolerance usually being born of expediency.  New Amsterdam was being colonized at the time of Holland’s “Golden Age,” a time of peace, prosperity, and cultural flowering, and there was really no dissatisfied, disaffected, deprived, or religiously-persecuted underclass in Holland to settle the New World colonies, as there was, for example, in England at that same time.  The Dutch West Indies Company had difficulty recruiting colonists at all, since New Amsterdam was the ends-of-the-earth wilderness.  Slaves made it possible to produce the food and goods necessary for life in the new territories.  By giving the slaves half freedom, the Dutch masters absolved themselves of the responsibility for their slaves’ physical well-being and expensive up-keep.  It also alleviated the Dutch of the necessity for close supervision of the slaves, which would have been nearly impossible, given the extreme manpower shortage of the Dutch.  By granting the Black people land to farm in the northern reaches of the city, (in what is now Greenwich Village, Chinatown, Soho, and Noho) the Dutch had ensured a steady supply of food for themselves, as well as created a protective “buffer” between themselves and the sometimes hostile Native Americans.
            The English had a more rigid view of slavery, and after they gained control of New Amsterdam in 1664 and renamed it New York, they severely restricted the rights of Black tradespeople and farmers, denying them their rights to own land and practice certain skilled trades.  They also instituted a legal and enforced segregation of Black people, which carried over from life into death, and prevented Black people from being buried with whites or in any consecrated grounds.
            Black people were very beneficial to both the Dutch and the English versions of the city, and it is doubtful that the colony would have prospered without them.  Many were skilled artisans, and productively worked and contributed to the success of the colony alongside their white counterparts.  The “invisibility” of Black history in New York City partially accounts for the importance of the Foley Square site: it is hoped to become the means, in some small way, of redressing the injustice and the imbalance of the historic record, and to give voice to the silenced ones, so that we may all learn.
            The “Negro Burying Grounds” appear on several maps throughout the 18th century.  The area to which they were relegated was a swampy undesirable part of town, fairly far removed from the then-limits of the city.  It was near the Collect Pond, at the time the source of fresh water for the city.  Around the Pond were various nuisance uses, such as tanneries, slaughterhouses, and pottery kilns, which were deemed too polluting, smelly, or dangerous to be located in the more densely populated parts of town.  Amongst those “nuisances” was the Negro Burying Grounds.  Even though many Black people had become Christians, they were not permitted to be buried in church grounds.  The graveyard, which was also used to bury prisoners of war, epidemic victims, and other “undesirables,” was in use from the late 1600’s to about 1792, when the land was platted and sold as building lots.  Although it was a known fact that the burial grounds were located there, builders dug foundations throughout the intervening years, which disturbed some graves and left others unscathed (if paved over) depending upon the depth of the foundations and the natural slope of the land.

 The Maerschalck Map of 1754, showing the Negro Burial Grounds near the “Fresh Water” (the Collect Pond).  Source: The African Burial Ground Project, Howard University, Washington, DC, “New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report," Vol. I, 2006. 

Detail from Robinson and Pidgeon Atlas, 1893.  Manhattan Alley was never built upon and therefore the burials beneath it were/are intact.  Note the dense commercial development of the burial ground site by this date.  Source: The African Burial Ground Project, Howard University, Washington, DC, “New York African Burial Ground Archaeology Final Report," Vol. I: 93, 2006. 

            At this time, [June, 1992] the archaeological dig has been underway for the past 9 months, yielding some 380 burials so far.  The dig site itself, to the unsuspecting, looks nearly identical to any ordinary high-rise construction site.  There is a large construction sign indicating all the principal players – the owners, engineers, architects, contractors, with a full-color rendering of the proposed building.  Nowhere is there any acknowledgement of the archaeological work or any indication that the construction of the building has been virtually halted by the archaeologists’ work.  If you look through the little portholes in the construction fence, you see an almost block-square L-shaped excavation about 30 feet below the street level, with poured concrete foundation walls defining the area.  Then you notice 6 or so plastic-roofed barrack type structures lining two walls, and facing each other.  And the huts are swarming with long-haired sandal-wearers, not your typical construction crew.
On the floor of the excavations, the director of the archaeology team, Michael Parrington, explained that in the 18th century, the ground level would have been 25 feet or so lower than the current street level, and that we were now standing about 5 or 6 feet lower than that.  In fact, I was at the level of the burial pits, and the graves being excavated are less than 18 inches below the ground I stood on.  Two archaeologists worked on each burial pit, and the tent I toured seemed to have about 6 burial pits under various stages of uncovering.  Bodies were usually interred east-west, in the African, Muslim, and Christian manner, with the deceased lying flat on his back. 
One team was just at the top most layer of the coffin demarcation, there being nothing left of the actual coffin wood save some discoloration of the dirt, creating a hexagonal outline, and some corroded and fragile coffin nails.  Few remnants of coffins have been retrieved, excepting one spectacular find of a coffin lid with nails outlining the deceased initials and date of death.  Some skeletons have been found with coins (originally placed over the eyes, it is supposed), but there were few other grave goods.  One woman’s skeleton was found with a belt of cowrie shells and beads in the African fashion, and some skulls were found with filed teeth, also reflecting African customs or origins.
Some of the deceased were buried in clothing, and occasionally buttons have been recovered.  But many bodies were buried only in shrouds, especially the children.  About 25% of the burials that have been found are those of infants and the very young, and almost half of all the burials are children under 15 years of age, illuminating the incidence of epidemics, disease, malnutrition, poor sanitary conditions, lack of medical care, and high rates of infant mortality.  Forensic archaeology can also tell, based on wear and tear of the skeletal structures, that many of the people, even the young people, had incredible stress exerted on their muscles and were over-worked, with lifting, hauling, and other repetitive heavy labors. 

A Burial Pit under excavation.
            Another team was working on a deeper pit, where the skeleton was already visible.  Although crushed and disarranged, it was still recognizable as a fellow human being with swirls of coffin wood embedded in the skull and legbones.  It was not gruesome or morbid, only poignant and evocative, as I thought about this New Yorker from two centuries ago, possibly born in Africa or born here into slavery, almost certainly here against his or her will.  I thought about how he or she lived, perhaps even happily, but certainly not easily, maybe had a family, worked hard, and tried to make sense of this world as we all do, and died at too early an age.  The burial rites of the Black people were perhaps one of the only occasions they had to participate in their own cultural community, and to celebrate customs that persisted from Africa.  In other aspects of life, these customs were denied to them, and laws prohibited congregation of more than three Africans.  Funerals were therefore an opportunity to gather and commemorate in their own way. 
            Due to pressures from the Federal government to get the construction of the office tower started again, the archaeologists are working 12-hour days, 6 days a week.  After the burials are excavated, the remains will be analyzed in the lab, a lengthy and painstaking process estimated to take several years.  Some feel that the bones should be re-interred in their original graves after analysis, which could halt construction indefinitely.  Others are proposing re-burial in a nearby public space like Tom Paine Park opposite the Supreme Court building.  Others say the proposed Federal building should be redesigned to accommodate a museum and a memorial park be installed in the place of the proposed parking structure.
            The site should be considered analogous to Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty.  It has spiritual and historic importance to the national heritage of all Americans, and ought to be made much of.  National Park status would be appropriate.  Many Americans consider it sacred ground. 
[Thank you, Jean Howson, for arranging my visit to the site]

The African Burial Grounds and Commons Historical District.  Source: New York City Landmarks Commission Map. 

Update on the ABG:
A small part of the Federal Building site was set aside and made into a National Monument, which is operated by the National Park Service and open to the public (M-F, 9 AM - 5 PM, same as the office building).  The bodies that had been disinterred were re-buried on the site - not in their original grave pits, but in coffins hand carved in Ghana with village scenes and traditional symbols and interred in specially-designed crypts made of African Mahogany.  Special artwork commemorating the ABG was commissioned and installed, and there was a re-dedication memorial service in 2003, “The Rites of Ancestral Return.” 

The design of the “New Ring Shout” commemorative artwork

The ABG artwork that I like the best is “The New Ring Shout,” installed in the floor of lobby of the Federal Building itself.  It is 40 feet in diameter and made of terrazzo and polished brass, and is a collaborative work designed by the artist Houston Conwill, the architect Joseph DePace, and the poet Estella Conwill Mojozo.  It represents a “Ring Shout,” which is a dance-like form of worship done in many African cultures, a traditional that accompanied the African people when they were transported to the West Indies and the Americas.  It involves moving in a counterclockwise circle, singing, clapping, stomping and beating on the floor rhythmically with a stick or broom.  It was not performed for an audience, it was a celebration of God, and was closer to praying than to dancing, a way to pay homage to their ancestors.  The songs were simple verses and choruses, some of them using the well-known “call and response” form of song common in West Africa and later in American and Caribbean plantation life, and these songs eventually evolved into the form of American music now known as “spirituals.”  Elements of Christianity and Christian lyrics began to be incorporated into the sacred circle dance, blending African and Christian symbolism and ritual together. 

Details of the New Ring Shout

The “New Ring Shout” sculpture is in the tradition of world ceremonial ground markings, and draws heavily upon BaKongo cosmology and the Yowa cross, a representation of, among other things, the movement of the sun through its four stations (MacGaffey, 1983).  The sculpture incorporates cardinal directions of the body, celestial movements, forms of navigation, spatial reference, pathways, semantic relations, and social interactions.  
MacGaffey, Wyatt, 1983.  Modern Kongo Prophets: Religion in a Plural Society. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

It is unfortunate that it is such a big hassle to see The New Ring Shout these days, what with x-rays and high security to get into the Federal Building, and it sometimes takes up to 30 minutes to pass through all the screenings. 

Examples of Ring Shouts:

Hear an example of a ring shout song at

This was recorded in 1934 by John and Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress.

“Run Old Jeremiah”: Echoes of the Ring Shout

Source: Afro-American Spirituals, Work Songs, and Ballads, ed. Alan Lomax (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress Archive of Folk Song, AFS L3). Sung by Joe Washington Brown and Austin Coleman at Jennings, Louisiana, 1934.

Here’s a couple of under-30-second videos of ring shouts: 

For more information about the ABG:
Main web site for ABG

History Report prepared by researchers at Howard University for the United States General Services Administration (the agency building the Federal Office Building)

New York Preservation Archive Project