Fulton Street Heap


Playing sailor on a docked and decommissioned lightship wasn't the only pleasure that the old seaport area gave me. Nope, Fulton Street turned out to be full of garbage--underneath as well as on the surface.

As you may know, a lot Manhattan is made land. New Yorkers have long been fond of throwing their trash into the rivers and then building on it. Right now, it is South Street that runs along the waterfront at that part of the East River, but it has not always been so. When the Dutch arrived here, the river was quite a bit wider. Their shoreline road was along what is now Pearl Street (named for the quantity of shell on the shore.)

The Dutch put up a plank bulkhead between Pearl Street and the river, and then filled in behind it, forming The Strand. Then the English came along. They put in a new bulkhead further out, shoving the river over to make space for Water Street, a block east of Pearl Street. Then they added another block and Front Street. Soon thereafter, they gave the river another push and squeezed in South Street a block from Front Street.

Before the English filled in beyond the Dutch bulkhead, they long dumped their garbage into the river just to get rid of it. For a while there were several boat slips perpendicular to the bulkhead and they threw trash in them too. The slips were later filled in and became cross streets. Fulton was one of them. This came to my attention when I discovered the city had dug a large deep hole in Fulton at Water Street. In doing so, they heaped up a goodly pile of dirt. I was gazing curiously into the hole when something on the dirt pile caught my eye.

Fresh back from digging prehistoric fossils in Florida, I responded immediately to the sight of a blackened deer legbone lying atop the pile of earth. I began to scrutinize the muck. It was full of all kinds of Junk. Being a pack rat by nature, I commenced to dig into it and steal trash out of it.

I never wanted anyone to snatch my purse but I felt if someone was going to do it, that was the day for it. I was carrying an old handbag and wearing a jacket with large patch pockets. I cared more about the jacket than the handbag, so I moved my personal stuff into the jacket pockets and filled the handbag with dirty artifacts. I almost wished someone would snatch it---but only if I could see his expression when he opened it and discovered there was nothing in it but broken glass and old bones.

I started going back to dig on weekends and sometimes early in the evenings while it was still daylight but the city's hole diggers had gone home and there was very little traffic. Sometimes Aaron Rennert came along with me. I lugged home bags full of broken bottle bottoms and necks (handbow rum-type, all wildly iridescent from decades of burial), uncountable pieces of broken crockery which stubbornly refuse to be pieced together into anything, quantities of broken clay tobacco pipes, a few choice samples of bone, a brass buckle, the leather sole from a child's shoe, a handmade straight pin and other assorted miscellany. I found out that at one time there'd been an inn facing onto Fulton Slip, which accounted for a lot of the crockery, bottles and pieces of pipe stem. I learned that around the end of the 18th century, an inn would provide a male guest with a clay pipe for his after-dinner smoke. These started out with long stems, but after each use a bit would be broken off to give the next user a fresh mouthpiece. These broken off ends were thrown away, as was the bowl when the stem got too short for comfort.

I was digging away on a weekend when I noticed that cop cars cruised by with astonishing frequency and I wondered if there were dozens of them working the area, or just one going around the block like a carousel horse. It was one. Finally it stopped. Grinning, looking a little embarrassed, the cop on the passenger side leaned out and called, You know what I'm going to ask.

Mostly, it was cops who ask. They were the ones who passed frequently and saw me at the dig hour after hour. One pair restrained their curiosity the first day that they saw me there, but couldn't resist asking when I came back to dig the next day. Passersby usually hurried along with the usual New Yorker's respect of the right of privacy of others, but a few gave in and inquired. One asked if I was a geologist. Some kidded me about finding gold. One dignified gentleman with a briefcase seemed terribly embarrassed to intrude on me, but too curious to restrain himself. One day when Aaron was with me, a young kid joined us and even climbed a ways into the hole to retrieve a large piece of bottle bottom, but he devoted most of his energies to the oyster shells that abounded in the mud there.

I found that about half the people who inquired knew what I meant by artifact. Almost all of them seemed interested in my brief lecture on the development of the area. When one asked me if I was an antique dealer, I replied that I was associated with the museum up the street, which satisfied him of my altruistic purpose. (Well, I was associated with the museum. It he assumed it was sponsoring my dig, he was jumping to a conclusion...)

Some people were brief and satisfied with a quick answer. Others were garrulous. One, who worked in a nearby warehouse, dropped by again the next day to see if I'd found anything else, and came over to the lightship the following weekend to look it over. None was unpleasant or in any way troublesome.

I took one of my best bottle bottoms to the Seaport office and brought their attention to the trash under the street. Later I saw some other relics from the hole in the office. And I heard that someone from the Seaport found an old coin on the dirt pile.

When I was packing up to leave New York, I gave most of my artifacts from Fulton Street to Jo Meisner, who had become very active in the Seaport1. She took them to the Museum and later told me they were on display in a cabinet there. So the man who probably thought I was digging for the Museum wasn't so wrong after all.

  1. South Street Seaport Museum

© 2021 Gary Ross Hoffman

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