The Turnpike’s newest exit unearthed a dark history. Writer and filmmaker Ayanna Dozier casts light on the forgotten in her Issue 1 essay.
Image from "History of Secaucus," published in 1950 for the town's 50th anniversary.
When something is only rumored to have happened, we reconstruct a meager record with what remains, and leave a plaque in its place. In the case of Exit 15X – New Jersey Turnpike’s newest transit-hub gateway, and deemed “the billion dollar bet” by its harshest critics – it just may be the largest plaque we’ve ever come across, marking the spot where the unwanted and the marginalized were buried and interred at the base of Snake Hill. By way of her poignant words and eerie images, writer and filmmaker Ayanna Dozier reconnects us to the land in her Issue 1 essay, “in ways not visible nor permissible to the actual site.”
Ayanna Dozier, Snake Hill Asylum, 2021. Palladium print. 8 x 10 inches.
What is left of Snake Hill is very little, as much of its histories have been discarded to the annals of time and memory, including the name. Snake Hill, or Laurel Hill on its official records, can be described as a matrix of abandonment and neglect. From its unofficial name to the enchanting rock intrusion that bears its namesake, the Meadowlands region housed more than fifty buildings, many of which were closely connected to lives at the margin, as evident in its former potter’s field and asylum. The area is now home to a community park (Laurel Hill Park), a high school, and, critically, Turnpike Exit 15X, leaving most visible traces of its crestfallen past out of sight and largely unavailable from popular records. Secaucus Town Historian Don McDonough remains the sole archivist on Snake Hill’s past, and locates the fragmentary, and sometimes outright ignored history, as part of a culture of silence and shame. So often histories buried in silence and shame are only discovered through infrastructure development. The staggering reality is that many architectural projects of leisure and transport exist on specific sites of systemic loss and dejection, including potter’s fields, mass burials, asylums, and prisons.
A potter’s field describes a public, county cemetery that houses the poor, destitute, and unknown. To be buried at a potter’s field is to further locate one’s physical death with the social death that they experienced while living. Potter’s fields themselves are critical sites by which we can restore and reimagine care for the dead, and reclaim the humanity that was stripped from their personhood in life and death. As cemetery law scholar Tanya D. Marsh argues in Cemetery Law, our burial rites, legally, have not evolved in the last two hundred years, meaning that the same language and means of determining honoring life through one’s burial are also two hundred years old. This petrification of laws reveals that the same language and systems of governing during enslavement still occupy the official discourse of cemetery laws across the nation. This tension of who bears the rite to “personhood” is made tangible for the public through the existence of potter’s field.
To be buried at a potter’s field is to further locate one’s physical death with the social death that they experienced while living.
Potter’s fields are necessary sites to reclaim and open up for public history and mourning, however, their physical presence are far and few in between. The practice of a potter’s field is largely located in the 20th century, with many counties ceasing public burials in favor of cremation at the turn of the 21st century. In my ongoing research on cemeteries, active potter’s fields themselves are often entrapped with a county’s Department of Corrections Office, as is the case with New York’s Hart Island (a history I excavated in my installation, Cities of the Dead  and article “From the Records of Loss”). Hart Island is a collision of how the hierarchies of the dead reflect the hierarchies of the living, for the bodies sent to be buried there and the gravediggers, who are inmates at Rikers Island, are both marked as destitute in personhood. This matrix of social and physical death haunts the land and becomes more pronounced when one discovers that Hart Island is not only the largest cemetery in North America but is the final resting place for many who have perished from pandemics like COVID-19 and HIV/AIDS. My approach to Snake Hill, like Hart Island, then is to draw out and suspend the audience's relationship with the land in ways not visible nor permissible to the actual site.
Ayanna Dozier, Snake Hill Hospital, 2021. Palladium print. 10 x 8 inches.
Using a large format 4X5 camera, my process-based photography restores the camera as a process based medium and disproves its popularity as an automated system. I turn to alternative photographic processes from the 19th century, like platinum and Palladium-toned Kallitype prints, for their archival stability of roughly 1,000 years (for comparison, inkjet and darkroom prints have an archival stability of 100 years). My Palladium-toned Kallitype prints of Snake Hill translate the extended stillness that I experience while composing these images to both present audiences and those across centuries. I think of this work as not only a type of future planning but as spatial documents that transport audiences to the non-existent mourning present on “Laurel Hill,” hidden away by soccer and golf fields. Laurel Hill as a site of leisure is in opposition to the destitute lives and deaths of Snake Hill’s former inhabitants who existed outside of the “rites of personhood.” Only a series of small plaques—tucked away in an alcove near the waterfront moss-ambushed trees—mark the existence of the potter’s field and the former infrastructures of Snake Hill (including the asylum). They alone fall short of honoring the lives who traversed through and died on Snake Hill.
The tension between what was and what was made possible is difficult to ignore when canvassing the area now filled with golfers, runners, boat enthusiasts, and motorists passing through on the highway.
The hidden histories of Snake Hill are strenuously tied to the construction and expansion of the New Jersey turnpike. Exit 15X alone is responsible for what is considered to be the largest disinterment, or legal exhumation of a gravesite, in the United States. Hudson County Burial Grounds’ excavation revealed to a wider audience what was only rumored to exist. The tension between what was and what was made possible is difficult to ignore when canvassing the area now filled with golfers, runners, boat enthusiasts, and motorists passing through on the highway. The igneous rock that makes up the eponymous hill, still in place despite being blasted away tenfold to make way for its new residents over the decades, emerges as a prominent scar to these historical wounds ignored by the very infrastructures that now occupies the landscape. Snake Hill’s unearthed past of dejection, made possible by the Turnpike, and its historical erasure is a testament to the parallel roles that institutions hold over our personhood in life and death.
Ayanna Dozier, Snake Hill Potter's Field, 2021. Palladium print. 10 x 8 inches.
Ayanna Dozier (PhD) is a Brooklyn-based writer, lecturer, curator, filmmaker, and performance artist. She is the author of Janet Jackson’s The Velvet Rope (2020) and was a 2018–19 Helena Rubinstein Fellow in Critical Studies at the Whitney Independent Studies Program.
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