Alyssa Loorya: What Can A 300-Year Old Farmhouse Tell Us About Metropolitan New York?

Nov 13, 2020

Part 1 of the TED Radio Hour episode The Life Cycles Of Cities.

In the heart of urban Brooklyn, a 300-year old farmhouse still stands. Archaeologist Alyssa Loorya explains how artifacts found at the site trace the life cycles of New York City--from 1720 to today.

About Alyssa Loorya

Alyssa Loorya is a New York City-based archaeologist and preservationist. She is the co-founder and president of Chrysalis Archaeology and serves as a board member for several preservation organizations, including the Hendrick I. Lott House and Historic Districts Council.

Loorya is also involved in archaeological and historic preservation educational programming. She has developed special content curricula in archaeology and historic preservation and architecture for the New York City Department of Education, several local museums, and nonprofits.

She received her M.A. at Hunter College in New York and her Ph.D. in Anthropology and Archeology from The Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi.

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ZOMORODI: If I asked you to picture a farm in New York City, you might say...

ALYSSA LOORYA: I mean, come on. There are no farms in New York City. And Lord knows as a child, I was like, there are no farms in New York City. New York City is all steel and concrete.

ZOMORODI: But a hundred years ago, the city looked a lot different.

LOORYA: The surrounding areas were just farm after farm after farm.

ZOMORODI: This is Alyssa Loorya.

LOORYA: I am a historical archaeologist focusing on New York City history.

ZOMORODI: And I recently met Alyssa for a tour of the historic Hendrick I. Lott House.

Let's go for a walk. I want to...

LOORYA: Let's go for a walk. Welcome to the Lott House.

ZOMORODI: Thank you.

It's a 300-year-old farmhouse in urban Brooklyn.

LOORYA: We are in the middle of the block. The oldest portion of the house was built 1720. The newer portion of the house was built 1800.

ZOMORODI: So if we would - we're standing right where we're standing right now, say, 200, 250 years ago, what would be surrounding us?

LOORYA: Farm fields, dirt roads, cows, chickens. On Fillmore Avenue, there were two large barns, and it was a farm. It was an...

ZOMORODI: Alyssa and her team have spent the last decade excavating and cataloging the Lott House, finding artifacts from generations of the Lott family, a tiny slice of life helping Alyssa trace how New York City came to be New York City.

LOORYA: And all of that is one piece of a larger puzzle that is the fabric of a house. It is the fabric of a neighborhood, the fabric of a community. And that just grows and expands one onto the other till, you know, eventually, you have an entire city.

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ZOMORODI: OK, can I have a tour? Is that OK?

LOORYA: Yes, you can.

ZOMORODI: OK. OK, I'm going down some steep stairs into what looks kind of - I'll say it - a dingy back room. And it's got a sink that looks like it's from a hundred years ago and a...

LOORYA: It is (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Is it? OK, it is.

LOORYA: This is the original sink and washtub.

ZOMORODI: No kidding.

LOORYA: Yeah. Obviously, the stove...

ZOMORODI: As you would expect with a 300-year-old house, they discovered some surprises.

You've just shown the flashlight up into the ceiling, and there is no ceiling. It goes right up into another room.

LOORYA: So there was a trapdoor there. It's hard to see, and it's extremely dirty and precarious.

ZOMORODI: It turns out that the Lott family enslaved 12 people.

LOORYA: Yeah. You know, we have some of their names - Poll (ph), Harry (ph), Mary (ph), Hecktor (ph), Hannah (ph), Moll (ph), Cate (ph), Powel (ph), Tyron (ph), Tom (ph), Hannah (ph) and Jacob (ph).

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LOORYA: You know, these were men and women. And several years ago, we realized that there were two garret spaces, two attic spaces above this kitchen. And it was on either side in these garret spaces that we found materials that we believe were placed by enslaved persons beneath the floorboards.

ZOMORODI: This included things like a pouch tied with hemp string...

LOORYA: ...Corncobs that were placed in the shape of an X or a cross, representing the Bakongo cosmogram, which is a West African religious symbol...

ZOMORODI: ...Half an oyster shell...

LOORYA: ...And a child's shoe - a very crude, handmade child's shoe.

ZOMORODI: When you found those things, though, what did that tell you about who was using the space?

LOORYA: It tells us that the enslaved person or persons who occupied this space maintained a spiritual life that was connected to the place they came from originally. And I think that's important to recognize because the goal of the enslavers was to break a connection with the home 'cause you wanted to break that person. But the reality is they maintained that cultural tie. They maintained that heritage in their own way. And that's part of what this represents - that they did have their own cultural and spiritual life.

ZOMORODI: These artifacts are just a glimpse into the worlds of the people who lived there. And, of course, it's the people who form the character of a city.

LOORYA: It's like a time capsule.

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ZOMORODI: Life in and around the Lott House changed so much over the course of 300 years. Alyssa and her team found out that in the early 1800s, Hendrick Lott freed the 12 people he'd enslaved. And it's believed the house later became a stop on the Underground Railroad.

LOORYA: The top of the stairs is the room with the closet within a closet, and that's where they hid the slaves.

ZOMORODI: And is this it right here?

LOORYA: And this is it right here.

ZOMORODI: Fast-forward another hundred years, the city was rapidly developing with fewer and fewer farms. And then came the 1918 pandemic.

LOORYA: You know, we've been kind of going through the house and packing a lot of the artifacts and remnants. And among the things that we found was an old surgical mask.

ZOMORODI: Add another hundred years, and here we are, standing in the same house, dealing with another pandemic in a city that looks completely different.

LOORYA: You know, we can point out three centuries of architectural fabric. And, you know, it's - how often do you have a house that has that?

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LOORYA: You know, I take a moment, and I take a step back, and I think about the last person to live in the house, Ella Suydam. She grew up on a farm. You know, I have a picture of her in a cart being pulled by a pony with her cousin, and there's nothing but farm fields, open fields around them. And then between 1920 and 1930, the population around her increases 1,600%.

ZOMORODI: Whoa.

LOORYA: How overwhelming was that...

ZOMORODI: Yeah.

LOORYA: ...To grow up on a farm, and then literally, she had 7,000 people move in and become her neighbors.

ZOMORODI: A city is never static. It can transform in months or centuries, rise with an influx of workers and industry or fall because of war, weather or plague. And after this past year, a lot of us are wondering what will happen to urban living this time. So today on the show, Ideas About The Life Cycles Of Cities, how the cities of today are informed by the past and how they'll need to evolve to survive in the future. And for Alyssa Loorya, even though cities constantly change, some things do stay the same. Here she is on the TED stage.

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LOORYA: When people think of archeology, they usually think of dusty old maps, far-off lands, ancient civilizations. You don't think New York City and construction sites. Yet that's where all the action happens. And we're never sure exactly what we're going to find beneath the city streets. Archaeology is about everyday people using everyday objects like the child who may have played with the small toy or the person who consumed the contents of this bottle. This bottle contained water imported from Germany and dates to 1790. Now OK, we know New Yorkers always had to go to great lengths to get fresh drinking water. Small island - you really couldn't drink the well water. It was too brackish. But the notion that New Yorkers were importing bottled water from Europe more than 200 years ago - truly a testament to the fact that New York City is a cosmopolitan city, always has been, where you could get practically anything from anywhere.

I'm still amazed, you know, when I'm in the middle of Manhattan streets and we're digging and there's all this early 20th century and mid-20th century infrastructure. And how could anything possibly be left? Yet, you know, there we are. We find, you know, the remnants of an old water well that dates to 1790, and that's fabulous. It's, you know, these little pieces that just get left behind. And, you know, as modern-day New Yorkers in the early 21st century, we're leaving our mark. Our mark might look a little different. We certainly aren't leaving our trash where we used it. You know, garbage gets shipped out now. So archaeology will definitely look different in the future. And a lot of it probably will revolve around the built environment. It'll revolve around our infrastructure, our buildings. And, you know, how do we inhabit our spaces? And we are - in many ways, we're like caretakers for, you know, this part of the city's history, this part - this chapter of the city's story. And I think New York City has many more chapters left.

ZOMORODI: I'm wondering when you - you know, when you talk about this, does it make you feel sad, or do you see it more from a scientific documentarian perspective?

LOORYA: I think - the only thing that makes me sad is how fast some of the historic fabric can be lost in New York City. You know, we really are a city where you can have an entirely new skyline in less than a decade. And that was never more apparent than right after September 11...

ZOMORODI: Yes.

LOORYA: ...Where the whole skyline - you know, the skyline changed overnight. And then less than a decade later, we built a new one. So New York City is amazing in that way. And New York City has always been changing. But I also feel hopeful because I know that these are just chapters in a story and that cities - you know, let's face it. Sometimes, cities do fail. Nations fail. And they're reinvented. They're reborn. People are still there. It's just - it's a different form. And I think that's a hopeful thing, not a sad thing.

ZOMORODI: I guess finally, I just want to ask, you know, all the work that you're doing - thinking about the Lott House - City Hall Park is another site that you mentioned in your talk, the water bottle imported from Germany, all the things that you found - why is it important to learn about the farm and I guess just all the things that happened before we were here in the city? What's the significance of that, do you think?

LOORYA: I think having a - in a way, a well-understood past is the best way to help build your future. There are all these, you know, classic comments about, don't repeat the past, that we need to learn from our history. It's one way of learning from our history. But it's like, how did the city become what it is today? It's important. Good, bad and ugly, it's important not to ever forget any aspect of our history. And I think we are such a multicultural fabric.

The human population is a multicultural fabric. It's important to know how we've treated each other in the past. You know, most people will not do something so fabulous that their name gets listed in a history book down the road. Yet we are all part and parcel of the fabric in the community that enables our cities, our communities, our neighborhoods to turn.

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ZOMORODI: That's urban archaeologist Alyssa Loorya. You can hear her full talk at ted.com. On the show today, The Life Cycles Of Cities. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.