Tuesday, May 11, 2010
New Tenants and the Folks Who Used to Live Here
Nicaragua doesn't have any pyramids. Further south than the historic homelands of the monument-building meso-American civilizations of pre-Hispanic times, it does however have many stone figures carved out of ubiquitous volcanic rock. I photographed this one on the island of Ometepe in the largest lake in the center of Nicaragua in 1986. To my dilettante's eye it looks far more Aztec in style than Mayan. It looks a bit like the "eagle knights" of Aztec military aristocracy.
I was walking around my neighborhood in Brooklyn today, which was pretty much entirely constructed in the first decade of the twentieth century on what had been farmland for the previous several hundred years of American and European settlement. My block of brownstones was thrown up in 1907, a bedroom community for the industrial zone along the shore. Its first residents were a wave of Scandinavian immigrants, though its many classically-styled Lutheran churches are pretty much the only remaining trace of northern European ethnicity here; today it's a melting pot of Latin and East Asian immigrants, with smaller numbers of South Asians and "white" people (recognizing that color is a particularly imprecise measure here). Anyway it feels like an old, established, somewhat decaying neighborhood...and it's barely a hundred years old. No matter how many holes you dig, try as you might, you're not going to find anything man-made here older. The next neighborhood over has a stone farmhouse and few wooden frame ones going back a hundred or a hundred-and-fifty years more, but that's it.
I often wonder how that lack of a visible past affects our consciousness. In Mexico, in Europe, the past is all around you, layer on top of layer. But in Sunset Park, even the Mexican immigrants whose ancestors' civilization's remnants are clear to see back home are as rootless here as the rest of us.
The presence of Native Americans here before the Dutch and their bags full of clocks has an imaginary quality about it: we know they were here before but you can't easily prove it. Sure in upstate New York, even out on Long Island, there are Indian Reservations with real-live people in them descended from those original inhabitants, doing what they can to survive and preserve tradition and identity in a melting-pot world that has treated them particularly badly. But there's not even any stone statues here reminding us that this place used to be different. And whether, or maybe how, that state of difference was better or worse than today becomes a minefield of conflict between nostalgia and progress, racism and consciousness, evidence and imagination. What are our obligations of respect, of gratefulness, of acknowledgement?
There's no pyramids here either.