From the Records of Loss: The Cities of the Dead Project, by Ayanna Dozier

May 19, 2021

Loss is an integral affect for decolonization. Loss reminds us of alternative records that exceed what an institution can name and claim of a people, culture, and community. Loss scrambles the singularity of history proper as we come to know it by. Frantz Fanon argued that loss and its attendant affects remind us of what colonization has taken from us insofar as part of colonialization’s goal is “make everything, all histories come from it.”In this way, my work as an artist-scholar and curator is to redirect our attention to loss and think critically about not just want has been erased but even which records and archives can claim erasure.

Probing further into this inquiry leads to unsatisfactory answers and plenty of gaps, to make sense of what is, often, absence within records of Black communal production, I turn to affect to develop a vocabulary around what was not, what is not, and what can only be felt or conjured through present day intervention. This is the approach that undergirds my most recent work, Cities of the Dead (2021), an installation assembling film, photography, and a speculative architectural design that reassembles realtor Solomon Riley’s Negro Coney Island that was due to open in 1924 before the city of New York condemned the land in which it was supposed to open, Hart Island.

Solomon Riley’s Negro Coney Island was a completed ten building resort that was intended to rival Brooklyn’s Coney Island to serve the Black population living in Harlem and the Bronx. Solomon Riley was a Barbados-born Harlem resident who made a career in real estate during World War One. Cultural studies historian Kara Schlichting’s astute research and focus on regional players in the building of New York City in the twentieth century reveals that Riley’s real estate company, Elizer Realty, was instrumental in making Harlem a Black communal space. Riley helped transformed Harlem from a majoritarian white environment by buying property and renting exclusively to Black people. Wanting to expand the communal spaces of leisure available to Black residents in Harlem and the Bronx who were legislatively kept out of Throgg’s Neck and other leisure spots in the area, Riley bought the southern tip of Hart Island to develop Negro Coney Island in 1923.

Riley completed Negro Coney Island in 1924. My engagement with the archives on Negro Coney Island has been fragmented. The best resources that have assisted in me piecing together this history have been Black-owned newspapers like New York Amsterdam News, The Pittsburgh Courier and Negro World, where I was able to reconfigure a timeline, buildings owned, realty company, and possible collaborators for Negro Coney Island. While many revelations were discovered through these fragments, I was started to know that Riley completed Negro Coney Island and was set to open on July 4th, 1924. The city was threatened by this enterprise and used the nearby Reformatory (evident by its steeple) as an excuse to shut down the operation, erroneously claiming that prisoners would use the motor boats that would ferry visitors from nearby City Island as a means of escape. As that argument was not strong enough to kill Negro Coney Island, the city used its last resort and condemned the entire island, which forced Riley to sell the land back to them.

What surprised me about this discovery is that this decision was made two weeks before the Negro Coney Island was due to open and was only finalized in 1925. Thus, a completed structure that included a jazz pavilion, a dance hall, bath house, possibly a movie theater, a two hundred foot boardwalk, new plumbing for the island, and more not only sat unused for a year but was destroyed after the city successfully condemned the island in 1925. This is targeted erasure for Hart Island still has buildings from the nineteenth century on its premises. There are plenty of ruins on the island that signal histories of asylum, factory work, and imprisonment, but the one history that has no architectural ruin available (in which the plumbing made possible by Riley is still used for the island) is Negro Coney Island. This is a type of erasure that seeks to rob a generation of loss. How can we mourn what we did not know was never was?

Stella Nair, writing on the strategic architectural erasure of Inca culture and architecture by settlers in Peru, describes this type of erasure as rebuilding where the pieces of a communal space are nearly absorbed by the colonial power in which its structures not only become monumental in scale but in symbolic significance in relation to the state.3 Nair rightfully warns us of solely linking architecture to the state, and it is here where my project as a film installation ruminates on what is the loss of not having visible evidence of monumentality. The gross assumption can be that a people never built that, but when we probe the history of the United States further, we find time and time again, communities wiped out by systemic injustice (Both the destructions of the Black communities in Greenwood, Florida and Tulsa, Oklahoma come to mind). In this way, theorizing through absence, loss of architectural ruin invites audiences to reimagine a language that bears no visibility, no clear records beyond its absence. It allows me to fabulate or create with these absences and reminds me of the way in which systemic racism operates through the occupation of space in both buildings and land, which brings my attention to the peculiarity of Negro Coney Island existing on Hart Island.

Hart Island is a potter’s field in New York City. In a twentieth-first century context, a potter’s field is an antiqued relic of the nineteenth century in which individuals who die as “unbefriended” or without next of kin to claim are buried in a mass grave owned by the city. As legal studies scholar, Tanya Marsh’s scholarship on cemeteries reveals to us, many legislative guidelines around burial rites, practices, and architecture have largely remained untouched since the nineteenth century.This framework begs us to consider the stark reality that the governance by which we buried individuals during enslavement still occupies the official discourse of cemetery laws across the nation. Hart Island is unique in this respect, for it becomes a matrix by which we can witness these archaic structures around enact themselves in the present, for most cities have moved away from the potter’s field practice. What is even more singular to Hart Island is that the potter’s field is currently owned by the Department of Corrections, where gravedigging is one of the “jobs” made available to inmates at the nearby Riker’s Island. Thus both a social death and literal death cloud Hart Island for how the public is prohibited from interacting with these graves and the fact that the gravedigging and visitation (which is severely limited) are policed by officers.

Hart Island is a space marked by its racialization. Although there are no statistical records of individuals buried there with regards to their race, the records of who is sent to Hart Island for burial reveal the way in which racialized people are disproportionately affected by pandemics, lack of healthcare, and social care in society. Two critical archives of death currently exist on Hart Island that of individuals buried from HIV/AIDS and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. It is posited that Hart Island might be the singular spot in the world where we know holds the most amount of individuals who died from HIV/AIDS during its peak in the 1980s and 1990s based on hospitals that were hot spots for the pandemic and their records of bodies sent to Hart Island during that time. The same analytical methods can be applied to COVID-19’s records and how the hospitals at the margins in the more racialized zip codes in Queens and Brooklyn had higher numbers of fatalities to the virus and more bodies that were unclaimed due to lack of insurance, finances, and next of kin.

Cities of the Dead brings these racialized histories together and uses both film and architectural design to both manifest the existence of Negro Coney Island but also the acknowledgement of death that shrouds the island through the proposed monuments for COVID-19 and AIDS. In this way, Cities of the Dead becomes a model by which we can hold space for these intersecting histories that open up the island to be reimagined as a public space where the living and the dead can co-exist where loss drives the affective relations of the island toward a material outcome. It is an imagination that is a far cry from its current iteration that is shaped by the Corrections Office. Cities of the Dead aims to demonstrate to audiences how space, place, and history reveal how the structures that govern the dead are the same ones that govern the living.

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Ayanna Dozier (Ph.D.) is a scholar, curator, and artist. Her art practice centers film (both motion picture and still), performance, and installation work.

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Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism, trans. Haakon Chevalier, (New York: Grove Press, 1994), 63.

Kara Murphy Schlichting, “Working-Class Leisure on the Upper East River and Sound,” in New York Recentered: Building the Metropolis from the Shore, (University of Chicago Press, 2019), 89.

Stella Nair, “Witnessing the In-visibility of Inca Architecture in Colonial Peru,” Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum vol. 14 (2007): 50-65.

Tanya Marsh, Cemetery Law: The Common Law of Burying Grounds in the United States (New York: God’s Acre Publishing, 2015).

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