Unearthing the history of a neighborhood

Chris Matthews, left, and Brandon Ungar work at

Chris Matthews, left, and Brandon Ungar work at an archeological site in Setauket. (June 29, 2011) (Credit: Photo by Ed Betz)

Joye Brown

Joye Brown

Joye Brown has been a columnist for Newsday since 2006.

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Researchers from Hofstra University will close for the Setauket dig on hold

Carlton Edwards, who at 83 takes pride in riding his bicycle seven miles each day, remembers.

So does 93-year-old Violet Thompson, and many of the other elders living near a half-mile stretch of Christian Avenue in Setauket that is now a historic district.

They remember growing up in a local community that dates back to Colonial times, a place where Indians and African-Americans intermarried and stayed in place, for generations, to rear their children.

But the neighborhood -- which two decades ago was home to 40 families -- now has only 14. And the number likely would be lower if not for the efforts of the Higher Ground Intercultural and Heritage Association, a local not-for-profit working to keep the neighborhood alive.

"This is a rare place, a special place," said Christopher Matthews, an anthropologist from Hofstra University, which teamed up with Higher Ground for the first stage of an archaeological dig in the community. "It's not often that you can read about the history of a place and look up and talk to people who lived a part of it," he said.

In May, Matthews, along with students and community residents, began a dig at the corner of Main and Lake streets, where the home of Jacob and Hannah Hart stood.

A week ago, the site was covered over (the team will continue next summer), but not before it yielded thousands of artifacts that offer a glimpse of everyday life dating from the 1800s to the 1940s, when the house was torn down.

There were cow bones, buttons, pieces of hand-fashioned glass. Jugs, colorfully patterned pieces of cups and plates.

O'Ona Calvin, 67, brought three grandchildren and a great-grandchild to the local veterans hall to help wash rocks, minerals and shards of pottery to support the effort.

"We tried to piece together some of the pottery we had," Calvin said. "We think it might have been something that was supposed to hold butter."

At the dig site, the team, in one place, had unearthed a hearth; in another, a brick walkway. They'd also found a well.

But Common Ground, which initiated the project, and Hofstra aren't just digging. They're working to preserve the neighborhood's history by recording residents' recollections and teaching them the fundamentals of historic archaeology.

"I remember the house on this corner," Edwards said, as Matthews and his students, along with Robert Lewis, Higher Ground's president, worked the site for the last few hours this season.

Edwards also remembers the Harts' son -- "Uncle Earl" -- the last Hart to live at the house. "He got to the point where he couldn't keep up with the house so he moved in with his sisters, Aunt Lucy and Aunt Minnie."

Lewis, even with Higher Ground's work, worries about the future of the neighborhood.

"The taxes keep getting higher here, like everywhere else, so people can't afford to stay and the children move to where they can find jobs," he said.

He believes unearthing the neighborhood's rich history -- which includes Bethel AME Church, founded in 1848 -- is one key to its survival.

And why has the community survived this long?

"Everybody knows everybody and everybody raises their children with the same old-fashioned cultural values," he said. "We respect nature and understand that everything is connected to everything else. It's those kinds of intangibles that mean everything here."

Matthews, who travels from his home in New Jersey to work with the community, agrees.

"Suburbia is about anonymity; this community is, with its long history, about family and familiarity," he said.

"The community is an endangered species," he said. "It would be a shame to lose it."