First Cemetery–Chatham Square, on St. James Place, also very close to Confucious Square
Second Cemetery–11th Street & 6th Avenue.
Third Cemetery–21st Street & 6th Avenue.
During the nineteenth century, the accelerating sprawl of New York City forced the relocation of almost all of Manhattan’s dead. From 1846 to 1851, nearly 20,000 bodies were moved off the island, and by the Civil War most of the cemeteries in Manhattan were gone—taken to large, park-like cemeteries like Cypress Hills and Green-Wood.
Of the handful of cemeteries that remained—and still remain—in Manhattan, three belong to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Shearith Israel. In odd and somewhat obscure corners of Manhattan, these three cemeteries bear the marks of the city’s intense urban growth. They are small, shabby, and hardly noticeable, but their centuries-long survival in New York City is both impressive and provocative.
The Sephardic founders of the Shearith Israel congregation were a sort of Mayflower group in American Jewish history. In 1654, 23 refugees from the Portuguese Inquisition arrived from Brazil, becoming the first permanent Jewish settlers in North America. Now known simply as “the 23,” the refugees fought off the anti-Semitic peg-leg Peter Stuyvesant’s efforts to expel them, and went on to found some of the most prominent American Jewish families.
The congregation of Shearith Israel built their first cemetery almost 100 years before the American Revolution, in an area that is now just south of Chatham Square on St. James Place. Extending from the lower Bowery almost to the East River, it was one of the largest burial grounds in Manhattan, large enough to be fortified with artillery during the Revolution and for British troops to use as a parade ground.
But in the 1830s, the City of New York nibbled, then chomped at the First Cemetery’s edges, finally pressuring the congregation to move the cemetery completely. Shearith Israel did sell a large unused portion of the grounds, and eventually moved many of the bodies uptown. However, the congregation refused to move the entire cemetery and succeeded in keeping a quarter-acre lot intact.
Today, the First Cemetery is a small trapezoid stuffed behind an apartment building in a neighborhood of drab government towers. It stands an incongruous five feet higher than the sidewalk beneath it, the result of the city leveling a hill to extend a nearby street. It is nothing like the picturesque verdure of the Trinity Church graveyard near Wall Street, where the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton preen side-by-side for tourists.
Nevertheless, there is a certain dignity to the First Cemetery. In fact, a first encounter with any of the Shearith Israel cemeteries can be one of those rare and improbable moments when you feel you’ve discovered something no one else knows about Manhattan. As one of a pair of nice, pear-shaped women put it recently, as she stretched on her tiptoes to see into the First Cemetery, “You could walk down this street a thousand times and never see it. But see how nice it is.”
Shearith Israel’s Second Cemetery at Sixth Avenue and 11th Street was also once several acres large. Many Jewish victims of the yellow fever outbreak of 1822 were originally buried here, but in 1830 the construction of 11th Street hacked off all but the tiny triangular patch of twenty-odd graves that remains today. The tombstones inside lean flush against the wall in a crowded line that suggests they no longer mark individual graves.
It is remarkable that the Second Cemetery survived in any form. Besides the threat of the city’s expanding grid, yellow fever cemeteries were the target of public hysteria. Greedy real estate developers and other agitators inflamed public fears of toxic outgases from decaying corpses. The hysteria accelerated the removal of bodies from Manhattan, while other yellow fever burial sites were converted into public parks or were simply left unmarked. Somewhere between 10,000 and 22,000 are still interred in the hidden potter’s field underneath Washington Square Park.
“The city just paved over a lot of the other cemeteries,” explained the leader of a recent walking tour for the Tall Club of New York City (literally a club for New York tall people). “There are all sorts of stories of Con Ed accidentally digging up unmarked graves in the 70s. The bodies were still wrapped in their yellow shrouds.” As he spoke, the rapt members of the Tall Club tour, as perhaps only they could, were peering over the Second Cemetery’s wall, absorbing the anonymous and pleasantly overgrown red brick enclosure within.
The Third Cemetery, at West 21st Street and Sixth Avenue, is about an acre in size, and some of its graves contain bodies originally buried in the First and Second cemeteries. James Thurber wrote about it for The New Yorker in 1928, reporting a department store’s bizarre plan “to arch a building over the cemetery” that would supposedly leave it “undisturbed.” Had it not been rejected, however, the plan would have reduced the Third Cemetery to something like a dark crawlspace.
Today the Third Cemetery is anything but undisturbed by department stores. Tall retail buildings box the cemetery into its cramped lot, while large air vents behind the Scuba Network outgas hot air onto the cemetery’s array of foundering tombstones.
Worse yet, in June of 2006 several dozen headstones were damaged by falling debris from the “luxury apartments” under construction next door.
Like the other two Shearith Israel cemeteries, the Third Cemetery has somehow kept up its trick of endurance for several centuries now, accumulating its share of disfigurement in the process. And, again like the others, the Third Cemetery possesses an appeal that goes beyond its impairments and dilapidation.
“It’s such a nice place,” says Frank, an elderly man who lives under the scaffolding outside the offending luxury apartments. “You used to be able to go in there. The trees are beautiful, and they have little flowers in the spring.”
Frank speaks with a proprietary tone that borders on defensive, as if he wants to make sure no one judges the Third Cemetery by its rundown appearance.
“There’s a man who takes care of the place. He was in there earlier trying to get things cleaned up.”
He points out the plywood sidewalk set off by yellow “Caution” tape running along the edge of the cemetery.
“You can see they’re going to do some work in there. I don’t know what they’re doing, but they’re fixing it up a little.”