History Dissolving

Current Pearl Street in downtown Manhattan’s westside once was the wateredge of the seaport of New York City. When NYC was still called New Amsterdam, the Dutch called it simply ‘t Water (=the water). But ever since, the British extended the waterfront with a great dock and in later years the edge shifted further into the East River after successive landreclamations by about three blocks.

Currently, the buildings along South Street are occupied by the South Street Seaport Museum, the nautical museum in New York City. Much of the collection, about 850,000 artefacts were unfortunately destroyed in the 911 attack, since these were stored by the Port Authority, I assume, in the World Trade Center. The museum is housed in a row of buildings called the Schermerhorn Row, called after the influential Dutch shipping Schermerhorn family, who ancestor settled in New Amsterdam in the 17th century. The Schermerhorn family made their fortune in shipping and real estate, and descendants of the family dispersed throughout the US. (Schermerhoorn (village in North Friesland in the Netherlands) > Scher from Skir (old Saxon) = clear, bright; mer = (>(Dutch) meer) lake; horn (> (Dutch) hoorn = cape)

The collection of the South Street Seaport Museum consists mainly of scrimshaw artisanry, made of teeth from the sperm whale or other whales, by seamen in between the rare moments of hectic activity aboard. Yet, a small exhibit was dedicated to the remnants found in a waste basket in the backgarden of a Dutch resident of New Amsterdam during an archeological dig. The artefacts from the Dutch colonial period of New Netherlands give a sparce but interesting impression of the earliest settlers. A short piece of wampum, the native medium of exchange, glass beads, broken tiles of Delfs blue, even a cast of the actual basket. Unfortunately, the exhibit of archaeological findings from the Dutch period cover barely a single small room. Unfortunately, because New York is deeply influenced by the founding era, its dominating Dutch settlers, and the surrounding Dutch country-side, which remained dominatingly Dutch well into the 19th century.

History in New York City is a disappearing, dissolving event. Here the future is a dominant force in shaping the city, the surrounding. History is a past without present value, perhaps intensified by the constant influx of new immigrants, who have no emotional connection to the historic surrounding, whose past reflects none of their memories. And thus, history is quickly forgotten, the future that promises all hopes and dreams, the very reason of their arrival, the root of their stay, that future tenderly embraced. The history is no tender companion here. The 911 attacks with its completely destructive impact were but another dissolution of events.

The Fulton Street fish-market is another historic location that will soon disappear. There is no force in New York City that preserves history, that allows the impact of past developments to settle and take root. The fish-market will be moved to a new location, leaving no trace of this idiosyncratic trade of a sea-port town, that hardly has any intrinsic connection to the sea, flushing away the soil on which we stand, leaving nothing but a street-name sign at the corner.

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