"Intersectionality" is not just a fashionable catch-phrase. It's fundamentally historical.

Consider the word "intersectionality" from a visual standpoint -- beginning with street names, finding their intersections, and zooming out -- and the concept reveals itself clearly.

Occupy Wall Street argued that, although so much divides the 99%, whether we recognize it or not, all our grievances are connected. If we focus in on singular spaces, as Occupy Wall Street did, we see that every kind of movement can intersect in a particular place, sometimes all at once. One thing that we may start to wonder is to what extent social movements of different kinds have influenced each other in the past.

By highlighting overlapping layers of history, we can begin to see the ways in which these interwoven histories have produced the spaces that we live in, work in, and move through. Revealing the intersections between these histories can also build courage and solidarity, enabling us to better understand how our various movements can move forward together. 

Unsettling Wall Street

Many research projects locate New York's financial district as a particularly layered place in which the interaction between the country's hubs of colonial capital and radical resistance movements is especially clear. And yet few have focused on the literal intersection of these social movements in the same place, over long spans of time. Taking one of the earliest border zones on this continent as a microcosm, Unsettling Wall Street is a mapping project which reveals points of convergence between histories that have been, until relatively recently, seemingly discrete. The aim is to make these hitherto invisible intersections clear and visible, without collapsing particularities.

The "Hotspots" posts below this one reveal incredible intersections between social movements, as well as juxtapositions. When temporal layers converge on precisely the same point on a map, certain locations light up as historical hotspots which reveal how very fundamentally issues of race, class and gender are interconnected and intersectional.

Hotspot 1: Museum of the American Indian

Coming soon....

Hotspot 2: From Little Syria to the Twin Towers

Hotspot 3: Liberty Square

Hotspot 4: From the African Burial Ground to City Hall Commons

Hotspot 5: From the Lenape to Columbus Park

Crossing paths around Wall Street

We must acknowledge that, particularly for the descendants of colonized peoples, the past is present, pervaded by a non-linear sense of place and time. Taking a nonlinear temporal perspective on such a deeply researched historical hotspot as  Wall Street reveals intersectional historical connections that might otherwise be missed or glossed over due to academic over-specialization.

Take the intersection of Wall Street and Pearl Street. If you stand on that dingy corner, it’s hard to perceive how so much wealth was generated there. It’s also hard to imagine the natural environment that preceded these asphalt streets. And yet at this intersection converge two aspects of colonial extraction: the expropriation of Lenape lands, and the commodification of human life.

The American capitalist system began with a spiked wall. Like most walls, it was constructed for the purposes of demarcating and defending land claims. In this case, the “Wal” (“palisade” in Dutch) was built by a quasi-public corporation, the Dutch West India Company, claiming its domain as part of an expansionist project which sought resources beyond its terrain. The wall met the water's edge, and there, the unloading of commodities began, and when the wall later came down, that line of demarcation transformed into a colonial marketplace.

If you ever have a chance to wander around the financial district, you'll see that streets around here today have names like Pearl and Gold, names suggesting currency, commerce - seemingly appropriate streetnames for the Wall Street area. However Gold Street is not named for the gold bars in the basement of the nearby Federal Reserve, but a pasture that glowed with yellow flowers that shimmered in the sunlight, just beyond today's Wall Street (gold is an anglicization of the Dutch name for the celandine flower, 'gouwe'). Pearl Street referred not to precious pearls, but to the thigh-high piles of clam and oyster shells that lined the shore after thousands of years of Lenape harvesting, and later pounded down by the Dutch to make a pearly white road along the waterfront.

Only Beaver Street refers to a form of currency, in the form of thousands of traded pelts. And as the last loads of beaver pelts were shipped off to northern Europe, three quarters of the world's oysters were being scooped from New York harbor and grated into oyster mash, oyster stew, and fried oysters, and thrown into ice barrels to be clipper-shipped over to the kings and queens of Europe. These were the goods leaving New York harbor, but what commodities were unloaded at the waterfront and traded on Wall Street? All the way through the end of the 19th century, the main commodities coming in to New York Harbor were slave-produced goods like cotton, sugar, indigo, rice, spices, and coffee, coming from the Caribbean and the South. And right at the foot of that famous street known as Wall Street, people were traded every day like commodities. Wall Street was the auction block.

If you ever go on an average walking tour of Wall Street, you're extremely unlikely to hear these stories told. Usually, this is not because the guide is not aware of these facts. Rather, it's because there is so much to talk about in the financial district, and it can't all be addressed in a single walk. They've been forced to make choices: Do I talk about the birth of the American political system in the financial district? Do I talk about the rise and fall of our economy, white collar crime and the like? Do I talk about the Gilded Age, the days of the robber barons, and the labor movement? Or, do I focus on the colonial period?

If we start in 1609 and finish in 2020, which elements of all of the above are possible to focus on? In the process of making these decisions, a guide fleshing out a particular stop will undoubtedly skip, skim over, or fail to allow visitors time to process, important moments in history. After all, it is true: there is only so much an individual student or tourist can absorb in an hour and a half. This is one of the key understandings ever good teacher must work with. So which moments are judged worthy of prioritization, and which can be sacrificed as "unrelated" to the general theme? Let's just say that usually, it will be a choice between the experience of the Lenape, and that of the enslaved African population. These subjects are complex and extremely heavy, and to deal with both in a brief walk would be "too much".

Indeed: When people standing at Wall Street and Pearl suddenly come into an awareness that this was the location of the auction block, they often become overwhelmed and cannot process much more "information" after that. Many times, they reflect later that that stop was a turning point for them, an embodied experience which lingered for them for a long time thereafter. So do we stop the walk at the auction block? Perhaps so, if the walk participants have never been there before, and taken the time to understand what that means.

Unsettling Wall Street walks challenge us to go further, to refuse to surrender to the default of either-or, a default which invariably leaves out aspects of our history which are so incredibly fundamental that their omission turns any historical presentation into a lie. Our hope is that, standing at an intersection in the Wall Street area, walk participants will not only feel a new sense of awareness and presence, but feel their stamina for these subjects build, and integrate their new understandings into their daily practice.


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