Governors Island was until recently one of the best kept secrets of New York City: a quiet sanctuary a mere 800 yards from lower Manhattan that was largely deserted after the Coast Guard closed a post there in 1996. But this past summer, the island became a weekend mecca for pedestrians, cyclists and art lovers. There is really no better vantage for understanding the waterways around New York. Somehow, too, the quietness of the island—and the sense that all of its buildings, the oldest as well as the newest, have only recently been abandoned creates an unusually vivid sense of the many layers of the past. This was especially true if you happened to visit the Archaeological Dig.
The way to the dig was through a former Coast Guard cafeteria, where a display of maps, artifacts and photographs told the story of Goverthing, a tiny village founded by a Dutch sailor in the 1600s that was supposedly evacuated during an electrical storm in the mid-50s and then inexplicably buried under sand by the U.S. military. Outdoors lay the archaeological remnants of that community—a few streetlamps and pylons rising just above grade, the top of the chapel, a derelict gas station and the upper facade of the only factory in Goverthing, complete with a statue of its founder. The factory made snow globes.
All around the ruins of Goverthing lay the weediness and decay of Governors Island—disused military housing, chain-link fences, a construction crane, the botany of abandonment. Even the half-mile ferry ride across the harbor—from a slip on South Street to the northern tip of Governors Island—reinforced the sense of receding into the past. And yet the dig—and Goverthing itself— was an illusion, the artful creation of Geert Hautekiet, a Belgian artist and musician.
Some visitors, especially children, gave way to the illusion gleefully, happily shaking the shakeable hand on the statue of the factory founder and cheerfully cranking some bird-scaring contraptions said to have been created when Goverthing was overwhelmed by a Plague of Birds. Other visitors—adults—were wary, afraid of being duped even as they duped themselves by reaffirming the veracity of what they were seeing. The joke was subtle, incremental and half the fun—for Hautekiet, at least, was watching to see just when people got it.
In late September, just before the dig was closed to visitors, I went round the site with Hautekiet and had the distinct impression of being subsumed in the twinkle of an eye. A mere glance at Hautekiet—wearing his hard hat jauntily and, somehow, sincerely—made the phrase “keeping a straight face” pop into my head. But being in on the joke did nothing to dispel the genuine questions Goverthing raised. How do we construct our ideas of the past? How do we recognize authenticity? What role does imagination play in our conception of the past? And there were other questions too. What was I laughing at? The whimsical history of Goverthing? Or myself? What’s the right reaction to knowing you’re being had while the architect of the joke is watching?
It feels very uneasy being tricked, even momentarily, by a fake past like Goverthing. We don’t mind being fooled by magicians or surprised by theatrical illusion, in part because we’re prepared for it. But we’re used to finding authenticity in relics that seem to come from the past, and we do mind it when our reality sensors begin to lose faith in themselves without warning. Walking through the ruins of Goverthing—feeling the illusion of its authenticity slip away—is how I imagine it would feel crossing a vacant lot with extra-light gravity—disarming to all our instinctive indicators of normality.
While I was walking through Goverthing, I was reminded of visiting Love Canal, a Niagara Falls suburb contaminated with toxic waste dumped by the Hooker Chemical Company between 1942 and 1953. What I saw was a neighborhood that had been more or less abandoned, after furious public protest, in 1978. There was nothing, when I visited in 1990, to say that this was a historic site. In fact, the state of New York was hoping to make it an un-historic site by beginning to sell restored houses there—returning life to the present. I walked through the neighborhood not with a curator or a park ranger but with a real-estate broker. It looked almost ordinary, except that the electric meters had been removed from every house. Love Canal reminded me, in turn, of a fake suburb built at the site of a nuclear bomb test—real and yet illusory, ordinary and yet valuable, in its ordinariness, for what it might tell us about the eve of destruction. As I walked, I kept trying to grasp the reality of what had happened at Love Canal—the contamination of a way of life. But the sheer everydayness of the place—even in its emptiness—made that nearly impossible. I found myself straining to feel the historic reality of Love Canal because what I saw refuted my imagination. At Goverthing, it was somehow the opposite. You go in believing in the credibility of what you’re seeing, and you slowly—or quickly—feel it slipping away. The real art at Goverthing wasn’t found in the artifacts and ruins themselves. It was found in the reactions visitors felt going through it—going through a study in the plausibility of the past, an experiment in the psychology of historic belief.
The past is not an illusion. But Geert Hautekiet reminds us that we can’t experience the past through our senses, directly. What we know as the past is the convergence of many authentic details, supporting and confirming each other. They have such richness that events in the past can be reconstructed in many different ways, with many different interpretations, without negating them. And would the past be intelligible to us at all—understandable as authentic— without the analogy of our own memories? After all, they present us daily with the cognitive affirmation of our own superseded lives. How would a creature without a personal past in memory comprehend the idea of a non-personal past?
These are big thoughts for an archaeological playground like Goverthing, a place where you sit in the chapel turning an enormous wooden disk with your feet, driving a cannonball up an auger high enough to send it roaring down a chute, scaring the birds in Rube Goldberg fashion. But then that’s the way reality worked at Goverthing.
The real puzzle for me was this. By the time I finished reading the historic exhibits and walked out to the ruins, I knew that the Archaeological Dig was a glorious fake. I cranked the bird scarers, clambered down into the gas station, shook the shakeable hand of the snow-globe magnate. And somehow the plausible unreality of it all— the completeness of the illusion Hautekiet had created— made me begin to doubt my senses.
I saw a pair of doves resting on one of Goverthing’s electrical pylons. I looked hard at them, certain that they were careful re-creations—natural enough for a community that seemed to have been obsessed by birds. But just as I turned away, satisfied that the doves weren’t real, they flew off, over the chain-link fence surrounding Goverthing’s vacant lot, and out into the real world.
Verlyn Klinkenborg is a member of the New York Times Editorial Board and wrote The Rural Life and Timothy.
Originally published in the February 2010 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.