3 Lessons From NYC's New Memorial to Slavery

This post has been written as part of Let’s Go’s partnership with the United Nations Outreach Division.

Smile for the camera? maybe save the selfie stick and the goofy grin for the picturesque Long Island city skyline in the background. The memorial is gorgeous, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

Smile for the camera? maybe save the selfie stick and the goofy grin for the picturesque Long Island city skyline in the background. The memorial is gorgeous, but there’s a time and a place for everything.

Head to the United Nations Plaza in midtown Manhattan to see the Ark of Return, a permanent memorial to honor the victims of slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. After the United Nations General Assembly agreed to erect the memorial in 2007, they, with UNESCO, held a design contest. Haitian American architect Rodney Leon won with his design for the Ark, whose three inscriptions (listed below) challenge visitors to grapple with one of American history’s greatest tragedies.

1. Acknowledge the tragedy


It’s impossible to look at the memorial without being overwhelmed by the sheer amount of triangles, which represent the system of Triangle Trade, spurred by American and European demands for raw materials from the Americas (including the West Indies). The trade involved sending people from West Africa to the Americas (this route is called the Middle Passage). where they harvested the raw materials under exploitative, extreme, and inhumane conditions. The materials then sent to Europe, where they became manufactured goods, which were then sent to Africa largely in exchange for more enslaved people. A map inside the memorial also documents the system, while the white marble represents mourning and the reflecting pools encourage visitors to meditate on what they have learned.

2. Consider the legacy


Leon and the United Nations call on visitors to consider the legacy of slavery: intergenerational trauma within the descendants of enslaved people, along with institutional racism in our society. We often forget that this country endured 250 years of slavery, and it has only been about 150 years since slavery was abolished. While it’s important to remember how slavery has encoded itself into how our country works, we should also consider the extent to which slave labor is responsible for the United States’ wealth and dominance as a world power.

3. Lest We Forget


Finally, the monument calls on visitors to remember the tragedies of slavery, which are still, to some extent, alive and well in modern society. Beyond modern manifestations of the tragedy, the memorial serves to honor the victims who lost their lives and livelihoods to the institution.


You may be wondering why (or, if) it makes sense to memorialize the victims of slavery in New York City, when we so often associate slavery with the American South and the Caribbean. While New York City often likes to advertise itself as a champion of progressive values, the Conspiracy of 1741 serves as a reality check: NYC was just as embroiled in the institution of slavery as the rest of the country. In 1741, Manhattan had the second biggest population of slaves out of the 13 colonies, after Charleston, South Carolina. That year, 14 fires erupted around Lower Manhattan in two months, and a slave had been arrested after he was caught fleeing the scene of a warehouse fire that April. (Note: There was no proof he had anything to do with the fire. For all we know, he was a human being who, imbued with survival instincts, didn’t want to hang out in a building being burnt to the ground.) When an Irish indentured servant was arrested for theft, she pointed her finger at an alleged conspiracy of poor whites and blacks to burn down Manhattan, kill white men, and take white women for themselves. She thus inspired a “witch hunt” that resulted in over 100 people (mostly slaves and freed black people) being lynched, exiled, and burned at the stake. This was not the only event of its kind: another example is New York’s Slave Revolt of 1712.

5 Great NYC Ice Cream Spots

Today’s Tompkins Square Park looks nothing like the Tompkins of the past, notorious for its syringes, punks, and the cardboard box where neo-expressionist Jean-Michel Basquiat used to sleep. Ray’s Candy Store, however, hasn’t changed since 1974. For over 40 years, Ray’s has served up classics, like fried oreos, beignets, hot dogs, and malt milkshakes—but no candy, believe it or not. Upon entering Ray’s Candy Store today, you’ll be greeted by the somehow comforting stench of grease, and the octogenarian store owner, Ray Alvarez. Ray, originally Ashgar Ghahraman, entered the US from Iran in the 1950s and posed as Ray in order to hide his undocumented status. Although Ghahraman is now a naturalized American citizen, Ray will stick around as long as his namesake continues to feed Alphabet City. Enjoy the gigantic portions of greasy, sugary food in one of Tompkins’ lush meadows across the street.

Try the strawberry and pistachio frozen yogurt in a wafer cone with rainbow sprinkles. It’s way too big and way too artificial in all the best ways.


2. Soft Swerve

Soft Swerve’s fame extends far beyond the Lower East Side—tourists and locals alike line up to try the iconic ube ice cream. Ube purple yam (very similar to taro) is often used to flavor Asian deserts. If you’re suspicious of potato ice cream, don’t be so quick to judge. Ube tastes like a gently nutty vanilla. It’s simultaneously familiar and exotic, which is probably what makes it so appealing. In addition to ube, Soft Swerve serves less popular, but equally delicious flavors, like almond cookie, black sesame, and matcha green tea. The store pays homage to its New Yorker heritage with NYC-themed sundaes—from the Woodside (named after the Queens neighborhood) to the Division Street (named after the Chinatown street).

Get the ube purple yam and almond cookie swirl in a black chocolate cone with marshmallows. They use crunchy Lucky Charms-type marshmallows to contrast the smoothness of the soft serve ice cream.


3. Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain

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Brooklyn’s Carroll Gardens neighborhood feels like home, no matter where you’re from. While slurping down your old-fashioned New York egg cream at the family-run Brooklyn Farmacy & Soda Fountain, you’ll be surrounded by families from near and far—older generations reminisce about the days of poodle skirts and nickel buys, while young kids discover the beauty of malted milkshakes. Although Brooklyn Farmacy stays true to the 1920s apothecary it’s housed in, it updates these vintage classics with creativity and 21st century portions. Just be prepared to pay the 21st century prices.

Sip on the Pink Poodle ice cream float, a scoop of ice cream melting into bright magenta hibiscus soda.


4. The Original Chinatown Ice Cream Factory

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Stationed blocks away from the iconic Jing Fong Restaurant, Chinatown Ice Cream Factory has established itself as a mandatory post-dim sum treat. This family-run “unofficial NYC landmark” is one of Chinatown’s oldest businesses, open since 1978. Chinatown Ice Cream Factory may look like any other ice cream parlor with its glass display of multicolored ice creams. However, this display spans the length of the store: there really is something for everyone. If you want, you can get vanilla or chocolate, but classic Asian flavors are this store’s speciality.

Don’t miss these unique flavors: zen butter, an overwhelmingly nutty sesame and peanut butter blend, and pandan, a fluorescent green Malaysian leaf that tastes like taro.


5. Uncle Louie G Italian Ice & Ice Cream

Rockaway Beach used to be an unpretentious summer destination for New Yorkers, but the hipsterification of Riis Park and Fort Tilden has left much of the area obnoxious and overpriced. If you find yourself in need of unflashy icy refreshment after spending the day getting knocked around by Rockaway’s rough waves, walk down to Beach 94th Street for some good, old fashioned Italian ice with a fun twist. You could always just buy from the lady who pushes her cart along the beach, ringing her bell to announce her arrival, but she offers the same flavors you’ll find on every street corner: cherry, mango, coconut, rainbow, and maybe lemon-lime, if you’re lucky. Meanwhile, Uncle Louie G’s boasts almost 100 flavors. Stick around for the punny (and often accidentally euphemistic) flavor names.

Try one of these aggressively New York flavors: Holi Cannoli, Rainbow Cookie, Coney Island Cotton Candy,  FDNY Red, or NYPD Blue. Though, beware, the ices inspired by Italian desserts are quite chunky.