Saturday, June 14, 2008

Shearith Israel Cemetery On St. James' Place

Ths t provide background for the next post that has a panoramic movie

music: a excerpt by the Sephardic Tinge, "La Cantiga Del Fuego"
from mrbellersneighborhood no relation :)

The Undisturbed, by Jean Paul Cativiela
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.
Corpses were on the move in Manhattan during the nineteenth century. The city’s accelerating sprawl relocated almost all of New York’s dead, cutting some cemeteries down to fragments to make way for new streets, and giving others the bum’s rush uptown or across the East River.
Urban growth was not the only reason for the city’s roving corpses. Many of the living blamed poisonous outgasses from decaying bodies for triggering a series of deadly yellow fever outbreaks. City officials, newspaper editors, and land developers united in trumpeting the hazards of maintaining graveyards in the city, especially on such increasingly valuable land. 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-scale, park-like cemeteries like Cypress Hills and Green-Wood.
Of the handful of cemeteries remaining in Manhattan, three belong to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue of Shearith Israel. Not your typical walking tour bait, all three Shearith Israel cemeteries bear the contusions of centuries of intense urban growth. In odd and somewhat obscure corners of Manhattan, they are small, shabby, and hardly noticeable.
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 successfully fought off peg-legged and prickly Peter Stuyvescent’s efforts to expel them, and went on to found some of the most prominent American Jewish families. The congregation built the First Cemetery almost 100 years before the American Revolution, in an area that is now just south of Chatham Square on St. James Place. Eighteen Revolutionary War veterans are still buried there.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century the First Cemetery was one of the largest burial grounds in Manhattan. Extending from the lower Bowery almost to the East River, the First Cemetery covered several acres. It was 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 sold a large unused portion of the grounds, and eventually moved many of the bodies uptown. The congregation refused to move the entire cemetery, however, and succeeded in keeping a quarter-acre lot intact. Ultimately, the city leveled a hill to extend a nearby street, leaving the cemetery about five feet higher than the flattened land around it.
Today, the First Cemetery is a small, drab trapezoid adrift in a neighborhood of criminally repulsive buildings. It is nothing like the picturesque acreage of the Trinity Church graveyard on Wall Street, where the graves of Alexander Hamilton and Robert Fulton preen for tourists. Nevertheless, there is a certain dignity in the First Cemetery’s endurance. 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 nobody else knows about Manhattan. As one of a nice pair of pear-shaped ladies said, as they stretched on their 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."
Most of the Jewish victims of the yellow fever outbreak of 1822 were originally buried in Shearith Israel’s Second Cemetery, where twenty-odd graves remain within a high red brick enclosure. In 1830, the construction of Eleventh Street hacked off all but this small triangular patch of what was once several acres of burial ground.
The tombstones are arranged flush against the far wall, cemented or fastened directly to the bricks with iron brackets. They are stacked along the wall in a crowded line that suggests they no longer mark individual graves—the bodies they supposedly represent may be elsewhere in the cemetery, or moved uptown with the other bodies dislodged by the city’s new gridiron street plan.
It is remarkable that the Second Cemetery survived in any form. "The city just paved over a lot of the other cemeteries," says Larry Petrillo, a liquidation officer for the federal Small Business Administration. Petrillo recently led the New York Tall People Club on an informal walking tour that included the Second Cemetery. "There are all sorts of stories of Con Ed digging up unmarked graves in the 70s. The bodies were still wrapped in their yellow shrouds." Many of the yellow fever cemeteries in particular were converted into public parks. Somewhere between 10,000 and 22,000 are still interred in the hidden potter’s field under Washington Square.
Over the years, Shearith Israel has endured many sometimes bizarre attempts to eliminate or otherwise alter the Third Cemetery on West Twenty-first Street. In a 1928 New Yorker article, for example, James Thurber reported a department store’s plan "to arch a building over the cemetery" that would supposedly leave it "undisturbed." The plan would have reduced the cemetery to something like a dark crawlspace, had it not been rejected.
Today the Third Cemetery is anything but undisturbed by department stores. Across from America’s favorite literary superstore, colorless retail buildings box the cemetery into a weedy lot. Industrial vents behind the Scuba Network outgas hot air onto the cemetery’s tipsy, sinking tombstones.
Nevertheless, it’s still possible for pear-shaped ladies and others to see how nice it is. "It’s such a nice place," says Frank, an elderly man who lives under the scaffolding outside the newly-built "luxury apartments" next to the Third Cemetery. He carefully articulates the histories of all three cemeteries, including the story of Rosalie, who died as a little girl and was buried here. "You used to be able to go in there," Frank says of the cemetery in his backyard. "The trees are beautiful, and they have little flowers in the spring. There used to be nice benches you could sit down on."
At times, Frank seems a little defensive of the Third Cemetery, as if he wants to make sure no one judges it by its rundown appearance before hearing what he has to say.
"There is a man who takes care of the place," Franks explains. "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."


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