Walking Tours that Conjure New York’s Tragic Past

East Coast
Wednesday, May 30, 2012
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General Slocum Steamship Diaster, 1904. (Courtesy Sites of Memory)

General Slocum Steamship Diaster, 1904. (Courtesy Sites of Memory)

Before 9/11, the General Slocum steamship disaster was the greatest loss of life in a single day in New York. Never heard of it? You may have walked by a diminutive memorial fountain in Tompkins Square Park, but otherwise little remains to tell the tale of the 1904 East River wreck that killed over 1000 German immigrants from the Lower East Side. A major event of its time, the Slocum tragedy was commemorated in books and even a movie, but as generations pass, the memory has faded.

Sites of Memory, a newly launched project by art director and writer Angela Riechers, aims to reanimate the memories of events like the General Slocum, or the Civil War draft riots, or more contemporary tragedies like the shooting of Amadou Diallo, by taking you—physically or virtually—to the very spot and letting a literary-star narrators including Kurt Andersen, Luc Sante, and Lewis Lapham, tell you the often sad but always intriguing story of the unlucky people involved.

A Bronx mural memorializing the death of Amadou Diallo. (Courtesy Sites of Memory)

A Bronx mural commemorating the death of Amadou Diallo. (Courtesy Sites of Memory)

A recipient of a 2010 AOL Artists 25 for 25 grant, Riechers has created a mobile-friendly website that maps key moments in her selected memorial narratives, functioning somewhat like the familiar museum audio tours but with a macabre twist. “These events and countless other stories like them stubbornly hang around their old neighborhoods, though many of the places are long gone—the waterfront filled in, the buildings torn down, characters long since dead and buried. But the narratives endure, and tales that unfolded decades or even centuries ago can still resonate with our lives today in unexpected ways,” the site explains. The project grew out of Riechers’ 2010 MFA thesis for the D-Crit MFA program at the School of Visual Arts.

Check Sites of Memory to discover stories of Henry Bliss (the first traffic-related fatality in the Western hemisphere), the Park Slope Plane Crash, or fate of the Beautiful Cigar Girl. Soon, users will be able to upload their own stories, adding new pins to the memorial map and new dimensions to a walk through the city—just stop and ask your GPS “What happened here?”

Photo of the Park Slope Plane Crash of 1960. (Courtesy Sites of Memory/Allyn Baum)

Photo of Sterling Place after the "Park Slope Plane Crash" of 1960. (Courtesy Sites of Memory/Allyn Baum)

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