The Fountainhead: Remembering Seneca Village

The Fountainhead: Remembering Seneca Village May 19, 2017


The Fountainhead, part 1, chapter 7

Although Ayn Rand’s philosophy wasn’t fully developed in The Fountainhead compared to where it was in Atlas Shrugged, there are some things that are consistent across her books. One of them is this: The heroes know they’re the heroes, and the villains know they’re the villains.

This isn’t how it really works. The idea that Bad People are aware they’re Bad is a trope that only exists in fiction. Other than in rare and exceptional cases, everyone acts according to reasons that make sense to them, not out of sheer love of wickedness. But Rand’s philosophy, even in its more primitive stages, doesn’t allow for that.

It’s not enough for her to script a clash of two sincerely held worldviews even if the “right” side wins. In her telling, the villains have to know they’re the wrongdoers and act accordingly. That way, there can’t be any doubt as to which side the readers are supposed to root for.

Here’s that principle in action. We saw last week that Peter Keating had gotten Howard Roark hired at his company so he could ask Roark’s advice on his designs:

Sometimes, looking at the sketch of a structure simpler, cleaner, more honest than the others, Roark would say: “That’s not so bad, Peter. You’re improving.” And Keating would feel an odd little jolt inside, something quiet, private and precious, such as he never felt from the compliments of Guy Francon, of his clients, of all others.

This is only explicable if Peter Keating knows that he isn’t the protagonist.

By the standards he cares about – friends, academic achievements, worldly success, future prospects – Keating is way ahead of Roark, who to all appearances has none of those things. Yet he secretly envies Roark and pines for his approval, rather than vice versa, because… why? There’s no explanation for it other than that he knows he’s supposed to, because that’s what kind of story this is.

Just imagine the chutzpah on Roark’s part. Say you’re a wealthy, successful architect rapidly rising to the top at the most prestigious firm in New York City. You have a friend who dropped out of school with no degree, who repeatedly has to resort to manual labor to survive, and who’s jobless again after his last employer sputtered out in failure. You hired him as a favor, to keep him from going hungry. And he deigns to tell you that you sometimes do work that’s not totally worthless!

It’s only because Rand reflexively sides with her protagonist, to the point of not realizing anyone else might see things differently, that nothing about this strikes her as questionable.

He found compensations for his submission to Roark. He would enter the drafting room in the morning, throw a tracing boy’s assignment down on Roark’s table and say: “Howard, do this up for me, will you? — and make it fast.” In the middle of the day, he would send a boy to Roark’s table to say loudly: “Mr. Keating wishes to see you in his office at once.” He would come out of the office and walk in Roark’s direction and say to the room at large: “Where the hell are those Twelfth Street plumbing specifications? Oh, Howard, will you look through the files and dig them up for me?”

This… doesn’t seem all that bad?

Sure, if Keating was ordering Roark to do menial tasks like sweeping the floors or taking out the trash, Roark might have some justification in feeling demeaned. But these seem to be legitimate duties of the job he agreed to take. If Keating is trying to be a sadistic boss, he’s not very good at it.

Roark liked the days when he was sent out to inspect buildings in construction. He walked through the steel hulks of buildings more naturally than on pavements. The workers observed with curiosity that he walked on narrow planks, on naked beams hanging over empty space, as easily as the best of them.

It was a day in March, and the sky was a faint green with the first hint of spring. In Central Park, five hundred feet below, the earth caught the tone of the sky in a shade of brown that promised to become green, and the lakes lay like splinters of glass under the cobwebs of bare branches.

Another consistent theme across Rand’s books is that she conceives of power relations along only one dimension, the economic. There can be legitimate power relations, such as when your manager bosses you around, or bad ones, like when the government taxes heroic businessmen, but that’s it. She can’t imagine that people might mistreat each other for reasons having nothing to do with how good they are at their jobs.

But it does, and architecture and city design furnish some powerful examples. Since this scene is set near Central Park, let’s start with this one: Seneca Village, the long-lost free black community of New York.

In the 1820s, New York City proper was confined to lower Manhattan, and the northern part of the island was rural and lightly developed. Above 14th Street, there was nothing but farms and small patchwork communities. One of them, along what would today be 82nd Street to 89th Street, was called Seneca Village. It was founded by two African Americans, Andrew Williams and Epiphany Davis, who were the first to purchase land in the area. More soon followed in search of opportunity, especially after the state abolished slavery in 1827, and Seneca Village flourished:

The village was built in a desirable location, with proximity to the Hudson River’s ample fishing opportunities and to a natural source of clean water at a nearby spring. The village’s residences ranged from one-room homes to three-story dwellings made of wood and brick, and there are records of three churches and one school in the village as well. The 1855 census indicated that Seneca Village was home to approximately 250 residents and contained 70 houses. Life in Seneca Village was rural and its distance from the bustling streets of Lower Manhattan offered its residents a peaceful life. (source)

Seneca Village was one of the few places where free black people could own their own land – important since New York State still had a property qualification for voting – although Irish and German immigrants came to dwell there as well, forming a racially integrated community unusual for the time. As you’d expect, several prominent abolitionists lived there, and it was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Unfortunately, New York City was swelling and expanding northward, and some of its wealthy residents already had designs on creating a public park. When the state legislature approved the creation of Central Park in 1853, Seneca Village was within its footprint. The residents fought in court for several years, but unsuccessfully. The media of the time derided them as “squatters” and a “nuisance”, and the city used eminent domain to force them out and then razed the village. No remnant of it remains today, although archaeological digs have found traces of what once existed.

You can probably guess that no issue like this ever comes up in The Fountainhead. For all that it’s implicated in economic power relations and decisions of who lives where, racism was off Ayn Rand’s radar; she was either unaware of it or uninterested by it. As Roark says, the only thing he cares about is his buildings, not any people who may have been displaced to build them.

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