St. James Place & Oliver Street

21 Jul

Who knew the fifties were so amazing?  I mean Fahrenheit-wise, not the decade (although also worth some contemplation – get high and think about it).  This past week has been a revelation; it’s already warm enough in the sun to wander aimlessly around outdoors, and the ability to wander aimlessly around outdoors exponentially increases your ability to pass the time with meaning, humor and consideration.  Sorry, I just liked the way those words sounded.  But the fifties rock!

Before winter came along I was getting into the Lower East Side, specifically the area below Canal and Grand Street, where the blocks run diagonal to the east-west grid and public housing tends to dominate the sky-line.  And now it’s warm enough to get back to exploring.  I’m particularly interested in the area known as Two Bridges, between the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge, namely because of how close it is to the Civic Center.  I tend to think of the Civic Center and the Lower East Side as two neighborhoods that are further apart – first you have to pass through Chinatown, then Little Italy (what’s left of it), then hook a right for the LES.  This new approach is almost like a back door entrance.  Now sure, today this area is basically an extension of Chinatown, but historically it’s always been considered the Lower East.  That very proximity in fact played a role in the creation of the Civic Center to begin with.  The land north and east of City Hall was chosen as the site for various municipal buildings almost by default – the boggy ground (thanks to the old drained and buried Collect Pond) made the area undesirable for high-rise commercial development, and the slums of the Lower East Side made it an undesirable location for anything else.

But before any of those buildings came along, when the Collect Pond was still a pond and New York City still lay to the south, one small part of this neighborhood was used as a cemetery.  On present day St. James Place, just below Chatham Square, Shearith Israel, also known as the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue – the first Jewish congregation in New York (and the only one until 1825) – purchased land in 1683 and began using it as a cemetery.  It was actually their second burial ground in Manhattan, with an earlier one dating to 1656, though the location of that first one is today unknown.  As such the one on St. James Place is called the First Cemetery of Shearith Israel.  Burials continued there all the way up until 1833.  By that time development had caught up with the area and the city was beginning to nibble at the property; the cemetery shrank in acreage throughout the years, until only the small section we see today remained.

Well before the First Cemetery closed Shearith Israel opened a second one, on 11th Street just east of 6th Avenue.  When burials first began there, in 1805, 11th Street didn’t exist yet.  Six years later the Commissioner’s Plan was adopted, laying out the city’s grid plan for all future development, and the Second Cemetery lay right in the middle of what would become 11th Street.  Burials continued taking place however, as it wasn’t until 1830 that the street was actually cut through.  At that point the majority of bodies were dug up and moved to the congregation’s Third Cemetery, on 21st Street just west of 6th Avenue.  Only a tiny triangle remains of the original Second Cemetery, on the south side of 11th Street.

The Third Cemetery is by far the largest, taking up a whole lot on 21st Street.  It operated until 1851, the year that a law was passed by the City Council banning all burials in Manhattan south of 86th Street and prohibiting the creation of any new cemeteries anywhere on the island.  That law came just a few years after the Rural Cemetery Act of the New York State Legislature, allowing for the construction of large commercial cemeteries in Brooklyn and Queens.  A lot of graveyards in Manhattan were dug up at that time and the bodies moved to the outer boroughs.  This was partially in response to the cholera epidemics that would sweep through the city and partially an attempt to clear the land for more profitable development.  As such it’s a rare thing to find a cemetery in Manhattan now a days, and the fact that all three of these still stand (at least in some fashion) is pretty amazing.  And they aren’t the only three graveyards on the island, which is also kind of exciting to think about.  Do I sense the beginning of a new list?

(Originally posted Mar. 12th, 2010 on Takethehandle.com)

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