Last week, Jalopnik’s Michael Ballaban posted about what is easily one of my favourite urban stories of all time, which is that parts of Manhattan are actually built on the wartime ruins of English towns — churches, homes, pubs, libraries, shops, and businesses — all shipped to the U.S. as ballast during World War II.
I had first read about this in Jeff Byles’s excellent history of demolition, Rubble, where Byles writes that wartime “rubble,” created by Nazi bombing raids, actually became something of “a highly sought-after export commodity,” in his words. His own research here relies on landscape historian Kenneth T. Jackson:
Around that same time, New York’s FDR Drive was being constructed, which ran along the east side of Manhattan. “Much of the landfill on which it is constructed consists of the rubble of buildings destroyed during the Second World War by the Luftwaffe’s blitz on London and Bristol,” the historian Kenneth T. Jackson wrote. “Convoys of ships returning from Great Britain carried the broken masonry in their holds as ballast.”
As Ballaban explains at Jalopnik, “They dropped so much rubble there, in fact, that the area near the water’s edge between 23rd street and 34th street came to be known as the ‘Bristol Basin.'”
So, yes, these are pictures of London in ruins, not Bristol, but they’re here simply to illustrate a point, which is that the collapsed walls, destroyed foundations, and otherwise obliterated building stock of England became laminated onto the island of Manhattan at the end of World War II.
Photo via Fox Photos/Getty Images, from the Hulton Archive
There are at least two things here worth commenting on, one of which is simply the sheer, eye-popping, WTF archaeological amazement of discovering, down in the geology of the city, the ruins of another city, one that never stood at this site at all but actually exists across an entire ocean, very nearly on the other side of the world.
The city is thus, in an instant, revealed to be a weird layer cake of other cities, of ruins smoothed over ruins, paved under concrete and utterly unknown to the people driving over it everyday — unaware that, beneath them, there are still perhaps recognisable chunks of English cathedrals all packed in gravel and other broken chips of rock the way we might pack a piece of art in polystyrene peanuts. It’s just down there waiting!
It’s not even impossible to imagine, given other historical circumstances, that these old church lintels and carefully wrought Christian statuary, even though — or perhaps especially because — they were destroyed by bombs, becoming valuable historical artifacts. Their trip to Manhattan, you could thus reasonable argue, unfortunately missed its real and more deserving destination, which was not the dump truck of a road construction team but the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or even specifically the Cloisters, where these damaged yet contextually intact and historically fascinating pieces of destroyed architecture could have been on put on display.
In fact, as Ballaban more or less explicitly states on Jalopnik, it’s uncanny even to visualise this rubble field of English religious and vernacular architecture all spread and raked out before you on the eastern edge of Manhattan. Sadly, at least for now it is only in our imaginations that we can bring to life the volumes, plans, and outlines of lost buildings as we drive through or over or somehow within this flattened museum of architecture, a holographic gallery of the past invisible but for the correct techniques for revealing it.
Picture something like a car wash — a kind of corridor you drive into — only, instead of your car being battered and sprayed by niche machinery, some sort of otherworldly glow begins on your peripheral vision — and, my god, if it’s not the hallucinatory holographic 3D projection of buildings erased from history suddenly now existing again all around you on the FDR Drive, like ghosts arising from the tidal flats, where this tunnel you’ve perhaps unwittingly driven into is actually a kind of IMAX theatre of the spatial past, a flickering blue-lit field of arches, walls, and towers, and you’re driving through it, finally seeing what’s been hidden in the soil of Manhattan all along.
Photo via Fox Photos/Getty Images from the Hulton Archive
But I said there were at least two things interesting about this.
The other thing — and let’s admit that there are actually a million things, this is an absolutely amazing story — that’s so interesting about this is the notion of displaced ballast. I won’t go into this in much depth, but an awesomely creative art project last summer explored the notion of so-called ballast gardens, and it seemed worth mentioning here.
For her project Seeds of Change, artist Maria Thereza Alves explored the transplanted landscapes that often appeared — like little unnatural gardens — growing in the deposited ballast waste of international ships. Apparently little more than weeds, these displaced, orphan landscapes would eventually sprout on the ruin piles left behind by ships at the port.
Photos by Maria Thereza Alves, via Facebook
In other words, amidst all the random crap thrown together to make ballast, there are often seeds: these seeds, buried in huge piles of other detritus, remain dormant until they find the right conditions of sunlight and fresh air to grow again.
Interestingly, Alves also set her project in Bristol. As the artist herself wrote:
Between 1680 and the early 1900s, ships’ ballast — earth, stones and gravel from trade boats from all over the world used to weigh down the vessel as it docked — was offloaded into the river at Bristol. This ballast contained the seeds of plants from wherever the ship had sailed. Maria Thereza Alves discovered that these ballast seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years, but that, by excavating the river bed, it is possible to germinate and grow these seeds into flourishing plants.
The idea, then, was to cut open the landscape, in a sense, and let the buried one — the lost one, the ungrown one — come to light, like a terrain returned to life, sprouting into resurrection for all to see.
From Maria Thereza Alves, via Facebook
So the idea that we started with, of an archaeologically dormant landscape lying beneath Manhattan — a ballast garden made not from transplanted seeds but from deposits of ruined architecture locked beneath the roads and bridges — is just astonishing and totally awesome.
It’s like Jack and the Beanstalk, only a new version rewritten for an age of biotechnology, wherein it’s not a beanstalk at all but some meandering and labyrinthine city that had been hidden in the ground all along, finally blooming. It had been biding its time, wondering when we’d finally discover it.
In any case, the possibility that we might somehow, impossibly, magically, amazingly, see these ruins again someday, this other city beneath our city, buried by highways and roads — whether as actual fragments of buildings literally pulled from the ground or just some eye-popping new drive-through exhibition about the lost cathedrals of World War II England — is hopefully incredible enough that it will inspire someone to make it happen. [Jalopnik]
Lead image via Shutterstock/pisaphotography