Here, as you can see, the ground begins to sink and form the perimeter of a shallow bowl. The monument of the Great Architect stands where the land flattens out and spreads south in an unbroken swamp. I stand outside the gateway, between the mansions that once housed the middle managers who worked in the first downtown office buildings. Here, the tragedy of the wrap-around porches is undeniable; all that filigreed wood in shambles, smashed against the facades like broken noses. I dream up the former occupants in their rocking chairs, looking out at the steamy expanse of the park. I hazard the steps of the nearest porch and squat over the broken planks. The sun is setting, and night will soon drape itself over the park like a vast picnic blanket. The darkness, I confess, really does make it easier to see — to remember.
Andrew Morton stood under the late afternoon sun, while the city’s skyline, which even he might not have imagined in all its steel-girded, high-modernist glory, reared up behind him as so many peaks of shimmering blue glass. The merchant and master builder raised Tonklin Park out of the swamp on the backs of poor Irish laborers. Now he watched over the flooded grounds as they returned to their original state, a tuft of sinking land at the bottom of the city. His workers lay long dead beneath him. His arms, once extended toward the skyline in a repose of praise, had broken off at the shoulder. Blood-red graffiti tattooed his chest, and the sculptural details that once comprised his face were chipped away, leaving behind a mask of shallowly deformed features.
“Look at his jacket,” said the tour guide. “It’s more formal than was fashionable at the time of his death. He worshiped the business class of his father’s generation, who blended politics and commerce naturally.” We circled the monument, stepping carefully over the soft ground. “Look at the cracks along his shoulder. Kids used to climb up there and sit two across on each arm and take pictures. Teenagers did the same, passing cigarettes back and forth. I was among them, believe me.”
I took notes to appear engaged, though the details struck me as extraneous. I didn’t want to break the steady flow of information. He spoke with a rhythm and emphasis which I understood to be his craft. He stared into the middle distance or intently at the object of interest. There was a spellbound quality to his recitation, as if he recalled these details unconsciously. There was something else in his voice that was harder to define: an insistent and ghostly reverberation that said look, look, look. “Look at the stone. It was transported down the Schuyler River on wooden barges. Mayor Hill paid top dollar to honor Morton’s legacy.”
I wasn’t here to learn about Andrew Morton, not exactly. I was looking for the site of a famous skirmish between Irish workers and Nativist gangs, which, according to a series of news articles excavated from the university archive, had taken place deep inside the park, along the waterfront, where the two rivers collided and turned southwest toward the sea. The battle was the centerpiece of my long-gestating thesis paper on the politics of urban development during the city’s southward expansion. It was a ripe topic, replete with larger-than-life ward bosses, municipal corruption, old and tactile forms of street violence. I found in it the perfect maelstrom of character, incident, and analysis.
My professor had encouraged me to interview a local expert, and I found Eric Ketterman’s name in the bibliography of an obscure academic paper. He wrote a history of the park about a decade ago. It was a strange little book, full of hand-drawn sketchings and digressive, dramatic chapters about the Yellow Fever outbreak of the late 1770s, in which Eric’s descriptions of the dead and dying bordered on the grotesque. I read it one afternoon while seated in a dive bar not far from the park itself, the last such business in the neighborhood that shared Morton’s name — a crumbling, concrete pen for the last of the city’s working class.
I had met Eric only a few hours before. He arrived at the outer gate in a tattered windbreaker, his long gray hair lashed back into a frizzy ponytail. We had exchanged emails for weeks, and yet he was late and seemingly confused about the purpose of our meeting. I showed him the email setting up the “tour” and explained once again that my main purpose in hiring him was to help find the location of the battlefield. He nodded while looking over my shoulder distractedly into the ruined park.
“Of course,” he said, “Morton’s little war. I’ll show you the battlefield, but keep in mind there won’t be much to see. It’s right near the riverfront.”
After stopping at the statue for what felt like several minutes, we set off toward the interior, which was neatly divided by a wall of thick, perennial trees. Eric walked a few feet in front of me, maintaining the professional distance of a tour guide despite the fact that I was his only charge. We halted at the edge of the treeline. “Stay close,” he said. “It’s pretty tangled up in there.” We passed under the canopy into a clearing scattered with tombstones and mausoleums, around which the land had grown unevenly, obscuring the pattern of their original arrangement.
“This used to be a nice graveyard, ” he said. “My grandparents are in here somewhere.” He tapped his boot on a flat grave marker set into the ground with the inscription rubbed clean off. The slab looked ancient rather than mere decades old. “Here you have your working-class dead, your Poles, your Irish, the poor bastards who died in your battle.”
Eric took a swig from a canteen and wiped the sweat off his brow. He looked back warily, almost apologetically. I took note of the detail about his grandparents. I knew that he had lived above Tonklin Park for years, maybe his whole life, though at some point there had been an interlude of higher education and world traveling. He returned in the 1980s and worked as a reporter for one of the big dailies, until a round of layoffs left him unemployed and mostly forgotten outside of a small community of eccentric local historians. As an academic, his peers considered him middling. His book was sprawling and essayistic, but it benefited from being one of the few scholarly works about Tonklin Park, and perhaps the only one to track its ultimate fall into decrepitude in the 2010s. I sensed in reading it, as I sensed now, a profoundly tragic disposition.
We walked among the stones, stopping periodically to crouch and read the names. Eric knew tidbits about several of them: the city council president who raped his secretary; the closeted mayor who killed himself on Christmas night at City Hall; the famous “King of Pork” who built a chain of sandwich shops only to succumb to alcoholism and leave his name and fortune to his negligent, drug-addicted sons. Mostly the dead were immigrants and veterans of war. They were stubborn and discriminatory. Their hands curled easily into fists, and cigarettes broke in their shivering fingers. They feared cataclysm, but could not name the source of it. Whatever it was that wracked their hearts had already gotten inside the gates, like a plague out of the sewers or a fire in the basement.
Eric regaled me with their stories, and I must confess it was intoxicating. I hardly noticed the time pass as we walked from stone to stone, eyes cast down on the weathered inscriptions. I must also confess that I entertained strange suspicions about the dead and their influence. Maybe it was a mechanism for lending a measure of respect to subjects that might otherwise become mere names in books. Maybe it was a kind of guilt, the cloistered academic grimacing at past horrors. Or maybe it was simply a child’s superstition, a blunt flirtation with the metaphysical.
Whatever it was, it entered me here. The park was wet and shadowy, somehow dim and reflective at once, like a vast grotto. Eric’s strange but settling presence only bolstered the feeling of other-worldliness. I felt at peace as the day dragged into evening, and Eric’s anecdotes sprawled into mini-histories. Shadows lifted off the ground, dissipating. The graveyard darkened in its recesses. Its expansiveness, already hemmed in by wild growth and rising flood waters, became even more diminished.
Eric took another long pull on the canteen, until brown rivulets of what could only have been whiskey or some other dark-brown liqueur dribbled at the edges of his mouth. He glanced back at me with an expression that was plainly fearful, as though he understood the shame in what he did but could not repress it. It was an not-unfamiliar expression in this city of failed dreams and failed dreamers. “This way,” he said, almost whispering, and I followed him dutifully into the trees.
“Let me show you something that might help you with your paper.” He pushed through a bank of tall weeds and pointed to a circular clearing up ahead. “This is where Aidan Quinn gathered his men before marching them south to the riverfront. He gave a short speech here.” We walked to the center of the clearing, which formed a bizarrely precise circle. I turned around slowly in the slick grass, feeling suddenly enclosed.
Quinn was a ward leader and politico in the Irish ghetto. He ran the fire brigade like a gang and sicced them on Protestant foes. When the Nativists upped the ante with their cannons and lethal nighttime raids into the ghetto, he led the bloody resistance. That was until Morton came along and put everyone to work building his magnificent city park. The peace lasted for three years, but then wages fell as the project neared completion, and tensions rose along with them. The war resumed amid the construction sites of Tonklin Park’s riverfront promenade, and though Morton never officially interceded, there are rumors that he worked both sides, promising them favored status on other projects.
“You feel that?” Eric asked. “You can almost hear him speaking still. They say his voice reached an almost superhuman volume, and that he could capture an audience over several blocks, even above the cheering.” He dropped into a crouch and ran his hands over the wet grass, and I saw in the corner of his eye the beginnings of a tear, welling up into a greasy gray pearl on his wrinkled face. Something more than the past tragedies of the Irish working class were bubbling up inside him. He dropped his chin and started coughing violently. Bent over, he held up a hand to ward me off, though I had not taken a step toward him.
“My father,” he said through the coughs. “My father once gave a speech here as well. He was on the Save Tonklin Committee, the first one, mind you, in 78’ I believe it was. They almost handed it over to developers then, and of course they would have if not for the flooding. He was no Aidan Quinn, of course, just a humble carpenter, but I believe he did just fine. Then again I was only a small child, and I admired him greatly.”
He stood back up and took another swig. I didn’t know what to say. The intimacy of Eric’s style of speaking was fine when recounting the past. But when turned upon his own life, it came off as terribly vulnerable. I wanted to pat his back and guide him home, but I was stricken in place. It occurred to me then how dark it had become, and how it seemed that we had just barely passed beyond the outer perimeter of the park. “Mr. Ketterman, do you think we’ll be able to reach the promenade before nightfall? If not, we could always meet again later. I have some flexibility with my paper. In fact, I’d really appreciate more of your time.”
He wiped his eyes and started laughing, then moved toward me in two quick strides. I almost recoiled, but his hand fell over my shoulder before I could process his intentions. “This tour is best at night, if you ask me. During the day, it looks sort of shabby around here, more like a swamp than a park. At night, the darkness fills in the blank spots. It adds some of its shine back, some of its old civic gloss, if you use your imagination.”
There was something in what he said. In the cold light of day, the park’s bareness was on full display. It looked like an overgrown backlot. But as it darkened, the thrust of its former design asserted itself. The swampy, weed-choked interstices disappeared, and the widest clearings and sections of trail were accentuated, providing a clean schematic emphasis. Yet none of this should have convinced me to continue on in an abandoned park with an increasingly drunk stranger. My reasons for doing so were hard to explain. I felt compelled, as if I owed him at least that much after causing him to reenter this morass of painful memories.
He unfolded a tattered laminated map, pointed at the location of where we stood, and drew with his finger in a winding course toward the rivers. “See,” he said. “It’s just another mile and half until we’re there.” The distance, I realized, was never the issue. It was rather the stickiness of the place — its thorny recollections, its adhering memories. I feared that for Eric, a mile and a half was a journey through deep-time, an endless series of traps and trap doors that he could choose to avoid, but that he might also, in the fits of his melancholy, choose to unlatch one-by-one.
“If you’re to understand the battle, you must first understand the quagmire that the building project became in its final months.” We mounted a concrete staircase set into a slight hill, atop which sat a clearing covered in metal picnic benches and wooden park shelters. The roofs of many of the shelters were broken through or ripped clean off. The benches sat unevenly in the mud, jutting up at odd intervals and angles, as if they’d been shuffled and tumbled randomly over the ground.
“This is where Morton almost preempted the eager developers of later years, who pushed so hard to build housing here. His scheme was more modest, of course. He wanted to build a little town, with clean water and nicely separated buildings with gardens and yards, away from the hubbub of the central city and its diseases and its conflicts.”
I knew the story well. After all, it was partly the subject of my paper, and I had read Eric’s book, but I permitted him to tell me again. Though I understood intellectually that Eric was roughly as removed from these events as I was, I nonetheless afforded him a special status, as if the ghosts of these dead men had anointed him their representative. The story Eric went on to summarize was crucial to the paper: Morton’s town strained his finances and led to pay cuts. The pay cuts, which were unevenly applied, led to disputes among the Irish and the rest of the workers, who were all too happy to clamp down on the immigrants’ roiling discontents with clubs and hammers and the occasional firearm.
Work-site brawls and unceremonious assassinations in the mud-pits gave way to out-and-out skirmishes. The last of these was the battle on the riverfront, the central event of my paper, which I felt had been neglected in the historical literature, given the number of casualties. It happened during a rainstorm, and men sloshed through flood water to savage each other and dump the dead into the river. It was all very dramatic, a fine bit of intrigue to breathe new life into a history.
Eric climbed atop one of the metal tables and scanned the surroundings. “Look at the change in elevation. This isn’t natural. Morton made it so. He piled men atop of each other like bricks, till the ground held firm.” I understood that he meant this metaphorically. Still, the image entered my mind of bodies layered like sediment, limbs and skulls pressed against each other, knots of bone like boulders lodged in the earth.
I walked up and down the manmade plateau, tracing a rough grid of where the houses might have been built. I could almost see it, the outlines of Morton’s dream coiling out of the ground. I might have stayed there long into the night, reconstructing it, until Eric jumped down from the table and hit the ground with a hard thump — and whatever ghostly architecture that might have manifested evaporated into twilight.
‘The Battle at Tonklin Park’
How do we come to care about these long-dead souls? For me, it was a poem, The Battle at Tonklin Park by Michael Parson, the son of one of the dead workers. I found it in a collection that was long out of print, and I tore the page from the binding, because for a time when I was younger it touched me deeply, and I could not for the life of me explain why. I did not come from here. I came from faraway. I had only adopted this city — made it mine through a series of abstract affinities and desires. If I was being honest with myself, the thesis was a way to stake out ground, to draw under myself a piece of the city, which otherwise eluded my attempts to place down roots. I envied the natives who appeared to take such easy possession of their home, despite its brokenness. I could never have that; I could only contribute in my academic way to that powerful self-knowledge, which I no doubt fetishsized as a transplant — even imagining trying to explain this to Eric filled me with vague guilt.
“Do you know the poem about the battle?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said simply.
“It’s beautiful isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said again, and tilted my head back toward the night sky, which was fully dark now save for the spare radiance of a half-moon.
“Can you recall the words from memory?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I’d have to think about it.”
“I know every line. But I won’t say them. I keep them for myself.”
He came to a stop. His hand reached back with its palm out.
“Cover your ears,” he said.
I tried to ask him why, but he placed a finger against my lips, a bizarre and invasive gesture. I could almost taste his sweat.
“Cover your ears and wait.”
I did as he asked, and while it wasn’t a perfect seal, my hands muffled the sound of the airplane that hurtled overhead. It was a big cargo carrier with monstrous engines that ripped across the sky. No doubt it came from the commercial airport, which ingested resources from the city’s hinterland and sent them abroad for profits. After a minute or so, the plane passed out of earshot, and Eric grabbed my hands and pulled them away from my head. “It’s over,” he said. “Let’s get moving. It’s late.”
Immersion, it seemed, was the tour guide’s specialty.
We came upon a gray fountain, half-submerged, its head erupting out of the water like a thick-trunked mangrove cast in concrete.
“I have to sit,” Eric said. “Just for a minute.”
He sat down heavily on a bench, and produced the canteen once again from his pocket, tilting what seemed like the last of it into his mouth. The mosquitoes were swirling around us in nipping swarms. I paced around the fountain, momentarily dislodged from Eric’s hypnotic pull. We had been walking for about two hours. I was getting anxious, finally. The night was thickening. The city felt faraway. Still, I was committed to reaching the promenade, however long it took. We had come this far. I trusted Eric to an extent. I did not think he was dangerous, not to me anyway. I just hoped that his sense of reality was intact enough to know when it was sensible to take us out of the park. I feared that we would reach a certain threshold, and he would lose all sense of himself, leaving me in a flooded park with a near-catatonic man to manage. Though perhaps I was being condescending in thinking this, projecting an instability onto what were really just quirks and eccentricities.
“You’re not from here, are you?” He asked.
I was on the other side of the fountain. I looked up at him over the basin.
“No, no I’m not. I grew up about six hours west of the city.”
“Your parents still live there?”
“Yes they do. My sister as well.”
“Do you think you’ll ever go back?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Maybe you should,” he said, standing up.
“What makes you say that?”
“Oh I don’t know. Just a thought. Family is as good a justification as any to live in a place. There are others, but they get complicated.”
He started circling the fountain, like I was. It turned into a little dance.
“I like it here, Mr. Ketterman. There’s a lot of history.”
“Whose history?” There was an edge in his voice.
“Yours, I guess. Your family. Your neighborhood.”
“And you like our history?”
“Like is an odd word. I’m more fascinated. I don’t claim it for myself.”
“You mistake me, son. I’m all too willing to share. I’m a tour guide after all. But you should know something, something important.”
He stopped moving. So did I. Our faces were reflected in the fetid water.
“You only think you see ghosts. I know their names.”
A bank of clouds passed over the moon. The dark got darker. Lightning didn’t flash, not then, but a few minutes later. Thunder and lightning. No rain yet. That would have made things easier, if it had come then rather than later. I might have thought to walk away, to leave Eric to his ghosts. Instead he laughed a crazy laugh and said, once again, “follow me.”
The Save Tonklin Committee
The end of our journey was nearing. I could smell the river, the raw biological immensity of it wafting into the park. The section before the promenade was a wide belt of baseball fields. The ground was mostly covered with water, though a few dry spots poked through. The cages over the home plates were mangled and rusted red-black all over. The dugouts looked like framed sink-holes into the bottom of the earth.
“I know you’re focused on the 1840s, but let me tell you about something that happened much more recently.”
We moved quickly as we crossed the wide-open fields. I had to hustle to keep up. Eric looked tired, drunk. His jeans were muddy up to his knees. His windbreaker was unzipped and flapping and his sides. He held the empty canteen loosely in his hand, drawing it periodically up to his lip before realizing again it was drained. But his voice never wavered.
“My father coached a little league team. He ran for city council but lost to some greaseball with statehouse connections. He helped start the Save Tonkin Committee with my mother and her sister. He worked for 55 years as a carpenter in the union. Cancer got him later on. It was tough.”
The rain started up discreetly, a few drops at a time. I almost didn’t notice them. I was too busy listening — listening despite myself.
“The point is not my father. The point is my father’s world. I want you to imagine it. The baseball games. The barbeques. The meetings in the church. I walked out of the house as a child, and I came here. I sat in the shadow of Andrew Morton. I read comic books at his feet.”
I thought about the neighborhood above Tonklin Park. It was a suspicious place of drawn blinds and locked doors and paved-over lawns. The sidewalks were stained black with crushed mullberries. Immovable parked cars rusted eternally in place. There didn’t appear to be any children living there, or if they were they did not leave their homes. Those you did see were on their way to work, or to that last bar.
“We all came down together sometimes. We watched the fireworks.”
The thread of the tour was lost. There was no more history, only reverie. Still I was captured by it, convinced of it even. What a beautiful world Eric Ketterman had lived in, I thought. That bustling, sun-dappled universe cast itself over the dark, muddy, sinking grounds. I believed it. This stranger’s nostalgia had transmitted to me in high definition. The academic in me nonetheless fought his way to the surface. I tried to remember what I knew about the Save Tonklin Committee, how it fought for 10 straight years to stop the city from shutting down the park. The mayor at the time said it was a sinkhole, a waste, a hazard. It had to go. The committee said don’t pave over it. Save it. Build a levee. Plant trees. I had no idea Eric’s family was involved. Then again, many families were.
“I’m just thankful most of them were dead when they put that fence up. That would have broken their hearts. I know it would have,” he said.
Of course, the park in the end was the least of their worries. So much else went wrong for the city and its neighborhoods. There were no more massacres, not in the old-style anyway. It was slower than that. Not clubs and cannons and bare-fisted brawlers, but tools of ruin that were designed to do damage to an entire people, an entire way of life.
“Something happened,” Eric said, another tear welling in his eye. “I can’t account for it. I’ve tried. It all just came apart. Who can say why?”
Lightning shot across the sky, illuminating the park for what it was: a dead thing at the bottom of the city, a dead thing only half-buried.
A well-paved path carried us the last quarter of a mile. We didn’t speak. We let the rain stream down our faces. I stopped looking around. I was no longer enchanted. I was cold and sad and worried. I wanted to see this promenade, absorb it, then return to my apartment downtown, wash away the mud and crushed insects, and sleep until noon the next day.
Eric was muttering to himself now, repeating words. He held onto the canteen, but no longer sipped at it, finally resigned to its emptiness.
By the time we reached the promenade, the rain was coming down in sheets. It was hard to see, yet there was no mistaking the river. It was a roiling black horizon spreading as far as the next state, welling up now with fresh rain. I came up beside Eric for the first time that day. “Can you tell me the exact location?” I asked, and he pointed straight ahead. It was the section right at the ragged tip of the landmass that carried the city.
The promenade itself was mostly submerged. Just the wrought-iron railing peaked above the water line, which churned in the space between its rusted bars, spreading over the old embankment. Something yawned within me then, a nagging doubt. What exactly had I expected to find in this place, other than more drab ruin? What had to happen now for me to be content with my visit and finally turn back home?
“Come on,” said Eric. “Let’s stand where they stood.”
He waded into the water up to his knees. It was brown and brackish. I hesitated but not for long. I followed after him, as I had all evening. We stood there in the rising water, the rain hammering us. I was face-to-face with him for what felt like the first time. He looked terribly old.
‘“All right, kid. You be the Irish. I’ll be the Nativist.”
“Excuse me,” I said.
“Let’s act it out. It will help your paper. Really capture the viscera.”
He clenched his fists, the silver canteen gripped in one hand like a round barbell. and lowered himself into a fighting position.
I started backing away instinctively but tripped on something under the water and fell, for a brief moment disappearing underwater. When I surfaced, Eric was standing over me, the canteen held high over his head.
“That’s the spirit!” He shouted over a blast of thunder.
As I tried to get back up, he swung his canteen, striking me hard in the side of the head. I dropped back into the muck, more stunned than hurt.
“Mr. Ketterman, stop!”
And he did. He stopped cold. “Excuse me,” he said. “I’m drunk.”
He stood there, rooted in the mud, rocking gently on his feet. More and more of the river was pouring over the promenade. It sluiced onto the land, driving itself into the interior wherever elevation allowed. In the course of the evening, long after I was gone, it would make its way over the baseball fields, the fountain, the overgrown graveyard, and even slosh against the tall, rusted fence cutting off the city from its lost park.
“We have to leave, Mr. Ketterman. The park is flooding.”
He looked up at me with an almost childish expression. He didn’t want to go home, not yet. He wanted to stay at the park. Just a little longer. I tried for several minutes, after he went quiet, after he finally ran out of words to enchant me with, but he just stood there by the river and let the water rise higher and higher around his body, swallowing him up.
I’m ashamed to say that eventually I left Eric there, trapped in himself. In retrospect, I wish I took him by the arms and dragged him all two or three miles back to the city. But I had done a kind of calculus: I did not truly know this man, not really. He was a stranger and not worth dying for. This was his city, and I would leave him to it, whatever that meant.
I ran for much of the journey back across the park, all those details embedded in the landscape blurring together, stripped of coherence or intrigue. It had become only a depression in the land, a trap for water.
I live at home now. My father is sick and I could not bear to be so far away. I think about Eric often, as I walk the dog in our quiet neighborhood, itself greatly changed from when I was a child, and I hope that eventually he came to and dragged himself out of the water, so that he could return to the park, in whatever state it was in, on a brighter day.
I imagine him sometimes in the abstract, walking a changed earth, tucking himself away at the bottom of the city and staying there until the course of history turns back and repeats, and once again he can inhabit a world that makes sense to him — a world he knows how to live in.
— Alex Vuocolo is a New York City-based business reporter by way of Delaware County, Pennsylvania.