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November 4, 2001

CITY PEOPLE

A Patch of Dirt With a Haunting Past

By ERIKA KINETZ

NICHOLAS EVANS-CATO has been painting pictures of the same triangle of dirt for five years. Today the object of his affection an awkward lot at Hudson Avenue and Front Street in the Vinegar Hill section of Brooklyn is filled with sickly grass, robust weeds, automobiles, old socks and a deflated Wilson football.

But 200 years ago, historians believe, it was filled with the bones of patriots.

Mr. Evans-Cato, 28, a Brooklyn artist whose work has been shown at the New- York Historical Society and the Pratt Institute, among other places, painted the triangle eight times before he discovered its macabre history. He is now working on his 11th painting.

"I don't really believe in ghosts," Mr. Evans-Cato said, "but there was a feeling I had at that corner."

The triangle lies just up the hill from a part of New York Harbor called Wallabout Bay. During the Revolution, some 11,500 American troops died in British prison ships anchored in that bay, compared with a total of only 6,800 or so who died in combat in the entire war. Each morning, prisoners collected the dead from the ships, where diseases like yellow fever and smallpox were rampant, and buried them in shallow graves along the shore.


But the earth soon gave back the remains. In 1785 Joseph P. Cook, a congressman, wrote of the horror of "beholding a large number of human bones, some fragments of flesh not quite consumed, with many pieces of old blankets, lying upon the shore." He appealed to Congress and got the corpses buried, but bodies kept appearing.

Then, in 1808, the Tammany Society, a political group that grew into Tammany Hall, built a temporary monument and crypt adjacent to the Navy Yard. According to an 1867 book, "A History of the City of Brooklyn," by Henry J. Stiles, the interment celebration was a splendid pageant that drew 30,000 spectators.

But the groundswell of patriotism soon subsided. No money was raised for a permanent memorial, and by the 1830's, the small wooden hut, which contained 13 coffins of bones for each of the original colonies, had fallen into disrepair. In 1873, the remains were moved to Fort Greene Park, and in 1908, the Prison Ship Martyrs' Monument, an imposing Doric column designed by McKim, Mead & White, was built. The bones have been there ever since.

As always, delineating old history in feet and inches can be a tricky process. So far, the sole evidence of the location of the original wooden martyrs' monument is an 1828 property survey. That document labels as "Monument" the precise spot Mr. Evans- Cato has been painting.

"That map is pretty conclusive proof," said Robert Furman, president of Brooklyn Heritage, a nonprofit coalition of groups involved in commemorating the Revolution.

But some people have called for further research, both to confirm the location and determine if any bones remain at the site, which is privately owned. "We're pretty much agreed that where that map shows is where the monument was," said Prof. H. Arthur Bankoff, chairman of the department of anthropology and archaeology at Brooklyn College. But, he added, "you would like to confirm that it's there."

Last March, Brooklyn Heritage and the Brooklyn College Archaeological Research Center applied for state grants to do research at the triangle and at five other Revolutionary War sites in Brooklyn. But the Sept. 11 attacks make the grants unlikely, Mr. Furman said.

But Mr. Evans-Cato's fascination with the triangle does not hinge on historical certitude. "What drew me to the corner initially was the visual interest in that bend in the street," he said. "It was the break in the city's unrelenting orthogonal grid."

Mr. Evans-Cato, a Brooklyn native who lives in Fort Greene, completed his first painting of the area in 1996. Since then he has spent summer nights, wet winter afternoons and bright spring days painting roughly the same scene. "There was something about the corner that kept drawing me to it," he said. "I knew it was more than just a formal, aesthetic quality."

It was not grandeur. In "Triangle," the first work he did after learning in 1999 of its significance, torn plastic hangs from barbed wire, and garbage flecks the canvas.

The city is Mr. Evans-Cato's favorite model. He often paints Williamsburg and the Gowanus Canal, places with which he has childhood associations. He said he felt a similar if vaguer connection to the triangle.

"I've always been interested in prisoner of war narratives," he said. "There's something that touches me very personally when I read these stories."

In 1980, a drunken truck driver hit Mr. Evans-Cato and his father. His father was killed instantly. Mr. Evans-Cato spent the next decade in and out of wheelchairs, hospitals and his bed. "I've done a lot of thinking about being trapped in a place you can't do anything about," he said.

His paintings of the triangle have no sign of martyrs or a mass grave. Though Mr. Evans-Cato's paintings resonate with history, they do not tell it. That's a job for plaque- makers. "The painting itself doesn't tell the story any more than the triangle itself now tells the story," he said.

THE triangle is testament to a persistent American trait: forgetfulness. "In other parts of the world, even if all the bones have been moved from monument triangle to Fort Greene Park, that would be sanctified ground forever," he said. "In America, after 1873 when the bones were moved, it became real estate."

Mr. Evans-Cato said he would like to see a modest monument on the site, perhaps an explanatory marker and 13 trees. "There needs to be a physical space for these emotions, for these feelings of loss," he said.

In 1867, Mr. Stiles offered a similar admonition. "Oh, my countrymen!" he wrote. "These dead bodies ask no monument. Their monument arose when they fell, and as long as liberty shall have defenders, their names will be imperishable.

"But, oh, my countrymen, it is we who need a monument," he wrote, "that the widows and children of the dead, and the whole country, and the shades of the departed, and all future ages, may see and know that we honor patriotism, and virtue, and liberty, and truth."


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