A Walk Through New York’s Past

Hugh Raffles

Hugh Raffles

Reported by Raleigh McElvery ’16

Bowdoin’s most recent Santagata lecturer, an anthropology professor at the New School for Social Research in New York City, teaches courses with titles like “Humans,” “Quasi-Humans,” “Non-Humans,” and “Culture, Politics, and Nature.” So what is Hugh Raffles’ academic focus, exactly?

“While you call him an anthropologist, that label doesn’t really fit,” said President Mills in an introduction to the talk. “He studies people, animals, and objects, and the relationships among them, and his writing crosses interdisciplinary boundaries of anthropology, life science, history, economics, philosophy, and other subjects.”

Author of the award-winning book Insectopedia, Raffles is known for the unconventional perspectives he brings to his work. In this spring’s Kenneth V. Santagata Memorial Lecture, he presented a reflection on the history of Manhattan neighborhoods like Marble Hill, inspired by a long walk in the company of two friends last summer. Throughout history, he said, natural and human forces have carved the land – the soft, soluble bedrock on which Marble Hill rests. The area was exploited for its quarried stones, until the city’s infrastructure developed and made mineral collection more difficult.

Mineral connoisseurs were succeeded by archaeologists, whom Raffles calls “collectors for the future, holding back the tsunami of history.” Like them, he is interested in rediscovering and preserving the still-unknown stories of Manhattan and its people. While aspects of the area’s history remain buried in the past, a record of pre-European inhabitants surfaces every so often, much like the rock for which Marble Hill was named.

Raffles’ presentation, augmented by his own original video footage, depicted some of the surviving marble structures that pre-date New York’s subway system – now graffiti-covered and very much a part of the modern cityscape. It also chronicled the historical attempts to segregate the region, physically as well as along ethnic and religious lines. One of Raffles’ aims is “to emphasize the constant displacement of people” within Manhattan, he said.

Bowdoin College’s Santagata Memorial Lecture Fund was established in 1982 by family and friends of Kenneth V. Santagata, Bowdoin class of 1973, to provide one lecture each semester from among the fields of arts, humanities, or social sciences. The lecturers are recognized authorities in their fields who present novel approaches to their subjects.

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