Uncovering a Small Town (and Some Tall Tales)

September 19, 2009 at 5:59 pm Leave a comment

Touring an archaeological dig site, you generally expect a glimpse of antiquities a little more antediluvian than a television antenna, a seven-inch single, a tailfin and a rotary-dial telephone. But an odd excavation site that recently opened to the public on Governors Island purports to offer just that: artifacts not of the Mesoamerican but of the midcentury variety, about 1954.
That is the year, at least according to Geert Hautekiet, the man in charge of exhibiting the site, that the United States Army, which then controlled the island, ordered a small, obscure civilian community there to be evacuated during the approach of a dangerous electrical storm. All of the buildings and houses in the town, Mr. Hautekiet said, were then inexplicably buried under sand by the military, which later appeared to deny that the village had ever existed.

The town, known as Goverthing — which strangely has never appeared on any New York City historical maps or been noted by a single historian — is said to have been stumbled upon during recent demolition work on the island, which New York City and New York State have jointly controlled since 2003, seeking to develop it as a recreational, historic and artistic destination.

It was then, the story goes, that a team of Belgian archaeologists was summoned to uncover pieces of the unlikely — indeed, almost unbelievable — community that, before it was evacuated, numbered only 29 residents, many of Belgian and French descent, whose livelihood centered on a small factory in town that capitalized on a once-thriving international market for snow globes.

The archaeologist credited with supervising the dig could not be reached for comment this week, and the Web site of the Belgian university where he is said to work shows no record of him. But Mr. Hautekiet, who described himself as an exhibition specialist dispatched from Antwerp to oversee the display of the site — he has a long background in unconventional guerrilla theater and sly conceptual art in Belgium — recently showed a reporter some of the more unusual items recovered.

They included early, commercially unsuccessful snow globes, like one depicting a small boy being chased by two polar bears, and various implements that seem to have been used for protection against birds, which he said were at one time a scourge of the townspeople. (The label alongside one such item in the artifacts section of the dig — a metal scrotum cover for men — surmises that it was worn primarily around “aggressive ambulatory birds such as geese.”)

Mr. Hautekiet said that as the dig has proceeded, details of Goverthing’s history have begun to emerge. The town originated, apparently, in the 17th century, as a sparsely populated settlement just off the coast of Governors Island, on a tiny island that was absorbed in 1909 when the bigger island was greatly enlarged with landfill. (Goverthing’s first known white settler, Frederick Van Der Keylen, a Dutch ship hand accidentally left behind during an expedition, lived alone there as an “embittered hermit” until his death, Mr. Hautekiet said; the tiny island, he added, was later settled by northern French colonists.)

For visitors to the site, what appear to be the remains of a church and of the old snow-globe plant are visible, including the remarkably well-preserved tops of the factory’s silos, which are crowned by signs indicating that one was used to stockpile artificial snow, and the other the water used to fill the globes.

A gas station said to have been operated by a Spanish immigrant and his wife, a striking local chanteuse known at the Nightingale, is also visible, with a Wurlitzer jukebox still in working condition inside. The backs of three partly buried cars can be seen nearby.

The site also includes a number of sculpturelike apparatuses for scaring off birds, the result — according to what Mr. Hautekiet said the archaeologists have pieced together — of a troubling period in the town’s history in 1953 called the Plague of Birds. A monthslong infestation was apparently caused when the Spanish gas station owner, distraught that his wife had left him for a trucker, built hundreds of intricate and alluring bird houses and placed them around his business, where they can now be seen.

Mr. Hautekiet, 41, a large, friendly man with a seemingly endless supply of facts about the town, said that all attempts to locate former residents of Goverthing had been fruitless, though one — the tavernkeeper — had been found in a retirement home in Brooklyn, where he has refused for decades to speak of the town, its uneasy relationship with the Army or its demise.

Since the site was opened to the public — it is accessible Thursday through Sunday at $5 for adults and $3 for children, and has a Web site, archdig.wordpress.com — most visitors have said they found it fascinating, Mr. Hautekiet said, though some “skeptics” have questioned whether the dig is authentic, and how such a town could have completely escaped notice by historians for centuries. One entry in the site’s guest book says simply, “I’m confused.” Another says: “Fake cars. Don’t believe it.” Another visitor writes, defiantly, “I still believe.”

Asked whether anyone should doubt the exhibition’s veracity, Leslie Koch, president of the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation — which is promoting the New Island Festival, a Dutch performance and art extravaganza that wraps up on the island this weekend, though the dig continues through Oct. 11 — would say only that “many people have imagined the future for Governors Island, and we think it’s also wonderful to imagine the island’s past.”

What historical lessons might such an archaeological find impart to contemporary New Yorkers? Mr. Hautekiet seemed uncharacteristically at a loss for words when the question was put to him. Perhaps that life is always uncertain, a visitor suggested? Or, more specifically, that civilians should not trust the military?

“Those are both good lessons,” he said.

“And also, maybe, that you should never trust Belgians,” he added, smiling. “But that’s off the record.”

By RANDY KENNEDY
New York Times

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Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan, Public Waterfront. Tags: , , , , , .

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