What Lies Beneath: The Buried Potter’s Fields of the Lower East Side [UPDATED]

Posted on: June 25th, 2015 at 10:22 am by
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Please re-read the piece in it’s entirety. Send this to every councilman, congressman, preservation committee, the deep pocketed investors of Essex Crossing namely Taconic- hell, send this to the damn White House. Save the Lower East Side. Honor the people who came before us. Do not allow Essex Crossing and all the new development in the Lower to disrupt the resting place of our ancestors.

Essex Crossing is coming, but might the buried past haunt, or better yet, halt its progress?

Privy holes, landfills, fortification walls, canals, and the like together comprise the foundation layers of this city. Burial grounds, too. In fact, extensive historical documentation reveals that many New York City parks once served as burial grounds. There have been several occasions (perhaps most significantly, the discovery of the African Burial Ground) where uncovered remains at project sites actually ceased development and/or construction.

From the U.S. General Services Administration:

GSA’s African Burial Ground project began in 1991, when, during pre-construction work for a new federal office building, workers discovered the skeletal remains of the first of more than 400 men, women and children. Investigations revealed that during the 17th and 18th centuries, free and enslaved Africans were buried in a 6.6 acre burial ground in lower Manhattan outside the boundaries of the settlement of New Amsterdam, which would become New York. Over the decades, the unmarked cemetery was covered over by development and landfill. The finding deeply impacted the descendant and broader community and, at the same time, renewed awareness in cultural significance and historic preservation.

Now, you may find this macabre, but what if human remains from generations of yore are still entombed beneath the six designated Essex Crossing development parcels?  Based on exhaustive research aided by the discovery of the African Burial Ground, the content herewith contains a variety of sources mentioning the history of potter’s fields, and the very likely existence of undocumented burials beneath our stomping grounds.

Below is the blueprint for the African Burial Ground, illustrating the layers of history atop the coffins, and thereby proving my hypothesis. It’s plausible given the plots depth beneath ground level:

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National Park Service (gsa.gov) African Burial Ground

An excerpt from Archaeology.com:

The growth of the city’s population in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to a northward expansion along main thoroughfares such as Broadway. Street plans were drafted, and blocks over the burial ground were divided into lots for residential and commercial development. By the end of the century, ten- and fifteen-story buildings with deep foundations and with vaults that were used for storage and coal delivery were going up. The Negros Burial Ground, now paved or built over, was all but forgotten, noted only in a few historical maps and documents. Meanwhile, African Americans were now burying their dead on the Lower East Side, near what are now Chrystie and Delancey streets.

…In the Lower East Side, Sara D. Roosevelt Park served as a potter’s field for African Americans during a time when even cemeteries were segregated… the proposed Second Avenue subway line that would go through an area that may still have human remains, particularly the west sidewalk on Chrystie between Stanton and Rivington. It wasn’t until 1809 that there was an ordinance that banned burials beneath streets and sidewalks, which was “a not uncommon practice.” … Even the MTA’s own report lists the area around the park as sensitive for the finding of remains (although really, if you look at the list, just about everywhere could have some burials from an old farmhouse or church).

In 1847, the Rural Cemetery Act was passed, prohibiting the establishment of any new burial grounds on the island of Manhattan, and simultaneously authorizing nonprofit corporations to operate commercial cemeteries. Calvary Cemetery – located in Queens – became the byproduct, and was consecrated in August of 1848. Four years later, there were as many as 50 burials a day.

In other words, all the private cemeteries in Manhattan at that time – St. Paul’s, St. Marks in the Bouwerie, Trinity Church, Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City Marble Cemetery, and New York Marble Cemetery – were full or reserved. This essentially meant that only the wealthy (i.e. founding fathers of NY and their families, politicians, old money) could afford burials there. Calvary Cemetery was for the 99% (in modern jargon) and opened after the 1830 cholera epidemic which claimed more than 3,500 victims.

Which begs the question – where, pray tell, were these sickly victims buried?

From Thomas Bahde’s The Common Dust of Potter’s Field, New York City and its bodies politic, 1800-1860:

Of special concern to health reformers in antebellum New York were frequent and devastating epidemics of yellow fever and cholera. While large outbreaks of yellow fever were largely contained by the 1830s, lower class wards remained especially vulnerable to cholera epidemics. Public-health reformers cited numerous causes for these continued public health problems. Slaughterhouses, inadequate sanitation, and urban graveyards were among the most important… Nearly twenty years earlier in 1806, a committee of the Board of Health had reported that burial in urban churchyards was deleterious to the public health, stating that “interments of dead bodies within the city, ought to be prohibited. A vast mass of decaying animal matter, produced by the superstition of interring dead bodies near the churches . . . is now deposited in many of the most populous parts of the city.”

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Harper’s Weekly. April 23, 1881.

Now let’s quickly jump forward to the 1970s. It was then that the corrupt crew consisting of the now-disgraced Sheldon Silver and his comrades razed the lots that became SPURA, yet decidedly left building foundations intact. That choice was most probably due to prohibitive costs of removal.

From the New York Times, June 6, 1986, just a few blocks away in Little Italy:

In the 1890s, the tenements of the [Mulberry] Bend were demolished and replaced by a park. Between the mounds of bricks turned up in the current park construction, one can see the tops of old basements. Reports on the area throughout the 19th century refer to underground tunnels, warrens and even illegal burials. Undoubtedly much was exaggerated. But we are missing a chance to find out what was true.  -Brian Ferguson, assistant professor of anthropology at Rutgers University.

I spoke to a bunch of people who grew up on the Lower East Side who were happy to reminisce about the six SPURA lots. Here are two accounts attesting to the existence of these basements:

  • Instead of stoop ball, we would play basement ball against the stairs down there.  The rats were bigger than my little brother. It smelled like piss and vomit. Sometimes it smelled like dead shit, probably those giant rats decaying. Sometime we drank, sometimes we slept, sometimes we brought girls around. These holes (basements) were our clubhouses and when they paved over one, we moved to another ’til they were all gone. – Mario G.
  • Sometimes my mama would say “don’t you go down in those death pits, boy!” I always thought she meant because we could hurt ourselves or maybe the dead rats, but my grandmama told me a story once about some soldiers’ remains being found underneath where they used to keep the coal. The basements were coal cellars, too, I think in the 1900s. Maybe before that, I dunno. I never listened until one time we didn’t make it home before dark and I knew my mama would be all types of mad, but we decided to sleep in the basement instead of taking a chance getting jacked by some crackhead hanging out in the lots. On my mama’s grave, there was something not right spending the night in there with us. After morning came, I never went back to that pit.  -Artie N.

Finding proof of Artie’s grandmama’s mythical soldier was unsuccessful. However, the likelihood of it ever being reported or recorded is slim.

This story has multiple pages:

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