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|SUBJECT ||Subject: [hangout] Brooklyn Freedom
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Date: Mon, 19 Jul 2004 19:52:53 -0400
From: Ruben Safir Secretary NYLXS
Subject: [hangout] Brooklyn Freedom
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A Patch of Dirt With a Haunting Past
By ERIKA KINETZ
ICHOLAS EVANS-CATO has been painting pictures of the same triangle of
dirt for five years. Today the object of his affection an awkward lot at
Hudson Avenue and Front Street in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn
is filled with sickly grass, robust weeds, automobiles, old socks and
a deflated Wilson football.
But 200 years ago, historians believe, it was filled with the bones
Mr. Evans-Cato, 28, a Brooklyn artist whose work has been shown at
the New- York Historical Society and the Pratt Institute, among other
places, painted the triangle eight times before he discovered its macabre
history. He is now working on his 11th painting.
"I don't really believe in ghosts," Mr. Evans-Cato said, "but there was
a feeling I had at that corner."
The triangle lies just up the hill from a part of New York Harbor called
Wallabout Bay. During the Revolution, some 11,500 American troops died in
British prison ships anchored in that bay, compared with a total of only
6,800 or so who died in combat in the entire war. Each morning, prisoners
collected the dead from the ships, where diseases like yellow fever and
smallpox were rampant, and buried them in shallow graves along the shore.
But the earth soon gave back the remains. In 1785 Joseph P. Cook, a
congressman, wrote of the horror of "beholding a large number of human
bones, some fragments of flesh not quite consumed, with many pieces of
old blankets, lying upon the shore." He appealed to Congress and got
the corpses buried, but bodies kept appearing.
Then, in 1808, the Tammany Society, a political group that grew into
Tammany Hall, built a temporary monument and crypt adjacent to the Navy
Yard. According to an 1867 book, "A History of the City of Brooklyn,"
by Henry J. Stiles, the interment celebration was a splendid pageant
that drew 30,000 spectators.
But the groundswell of patriotism soon subsided. No money was raised
for a permanent memorial, and by the 1830's, the small wooden hut,
which contained 13 coffins of bones for each of the original colonies,
had fallen into disrepair. In 1873, the remains were moved to Fort Greene
Park, and in 1908, the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument, an imposing Doric
column designed by McKim, Mead & White, was built. The bones have been
there ever since.
As always, delineating old history in feet and inches can be a tricky
process. So far, the sole evidence of the location of the original wooden
martyrs' monument is an 1828 property survey. That document labels as
"Monument" the precise spot Mr. Evans- Cato has been painting.
"That map is pretty conclusive proof," said Robert Furman, president
of Brooklyn Heritage, a nonprofit coalition of groups involved in
commemorating the Revolution.
But some people have called for further research, both to confirm the
location and determine if any bones remain at the site, which is privately
owned. "We're pretty much agreed that where that map shows is where the
monument was," said Prof. H. Arthur Bankoff, chairman of the department
of anthropology and archaeology at Brooklyn College. But, he added,
"you would like to confirm that it's there."
Last March, Brooklyn Heritage and the Brooklyn College Archaeological
Research Center applied for state grants to do research at the triangle
and at five other Revolutionary War sites in Brooklyn. But the Sept. 11
attacks make the grants unlikely, Mr. Furman said.
But Mr. Evans-Cato's fascination with the triangle does not hinge on
historical certitude. "What drew me to the corner initially was the
visual interest in that bend in the street," he said. "It was the break
in the city's unrelenting orthogonal grid."
Mr. Evans-Cato, a Brooklyn native who lives in Fort Greene, completed his
first painting of the area in 1996. Since then he has spent summer nights,
wet winter afternoons and bright spring days painting roughly the same
scene. "There was something about the corner that kept drawing me to it,"
he said. "I knew it was more than just a formal, aesthetic quality."
It was not grandeur. In "Triangle," the first work he did after learning
in 1999 of its significance, torn plastic hangs from barbed wire, and
garbage flecks the canvas.
The city is Mr. Evans-Cato's favorite model. He often paints Williamsburg
and the Gowanus Canal, places with which he has childhood associations. He
said he felt a similar if vaguer connection to the triangle.
"I've always been interested in prisoner of war narratives," he
said. "There's something that touches me very personally when I read
In 1980, a drunken truck driver hit Mr. Evans-Cato and his father. His
father was killed instantly. Mr. Evans-Cato spent the next decade in and
out of wheelchairs, hospitals and his bed. "I've done a lot of thinking
about being trapped in a place you can't do anything about," he said.
His paintings of the triangle have no sign of martyrs or a mass
grave. Though Mr. Evans-Cato's paintings resonate with history, they
do not tell it. That's a job for plaque- makers. "The painting itself
doesn't tell the story any more than the triangle itself now tells the
story," he said.
THE triangle is testament to a persistent American trait:
forgetfulness. "In other parts of the world, even if all the bones have
been moved from monument triangle to Fort Greene Park, that would be
sanctified ground forever," he said. "In America, after 1873 when the
bones were moved, it became real estate."
Mr. Evans-Cato said he would like to see a modest monument on the site,
perhaps an explanatory marker and 13 trees. "There needs to be a physical
space for these emotions, for these feelings of loss," he said.
In 1867, Mr. Stiles offered a similar admonition. "Oh, my countrymen!" he
wrote. "These dead bodies ask no monument. Their monument arose when
they fell, and as long as liberty shall have defenders, their names will
"But, oh, my countrymen, it is we who need a monument," he wrote,
"that the widows and children of the dead, and the whole country,
and the shades of the departed, and all future ages, may see and know
that we honor patriotism, and virtue, and liberty, and truth." --
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