Standing in Washington Square Park in New York City, it’s hard to believe the cobblestones and iconic archway are built on bones. But beneath the feet of NYU art majors and the paws of spoiled Greenwich pups, are the remains of a massive pauper’s grave, which interred more than 20,000 corpses between 1797 and 1825, many killed in successive yellow fever epidemics.
The city’s parks may be welcoming the dead once again. As the coronavirus death toll ticks up, New York is considering “temporary interments,” according to city councilmember Mark Levine. “This likely will be done by using a NYC park for burials (yes you read that right),” Levine tweeted Monday. “Trenches will be dug for 10 caskets in a line.” While a spokesperson for the Office of Chief Medical Examiner told BuzzFeed it has no plans for park interments, and Mayor Bill de Blasio said he doesn’t want to talk “publicly” about the city’s plans, the possibility of such grim history repeating has captured many New Yorkers’ attention.
While Lower East Siders may fancy Washington Square Park’s ghostly origins unique, they’re actually part of an international trend in land reuse. From Washington Square in New York to Cemetery Memorial Park in Ventura, California to Postman Park in London, cities have been transforming graves into gardens for centuries. The decisions have been motivated by everything from money to poor memory, but local activists and archaeologists have shown that every park has its own special legacy—and there are many more bones to uncover.
Elizabeth Meade is an archaeologist with AKRF, one of the biggest environmental engineering firms in the northeast. She’s also wrapping up her Ph.D. student at the City University of New York, where she’s spent the last few years painstakingly documenting 527 cemeteries in the five boroughs. The roughly 200 resulting maps show the boundary lines of graveyards still open for business, historic sites just beneath the surface, and tombs 30 feet deep.
“There were quite a few that were reclaimed specifically to make parks,” Meade said. Washington Square, Madison Square, and Bryant Parks are the best known, given their well-documented histories as 18th and 19th century as potters’ fields—a plot where the city held indigent burials. In these cases, “the city owned [the land] already, and they could easily convert it,” Meade said.
But others were taken by force. Central Park mowed over “several” cemeteries, Meade said. The best known is Seneca Village, a free black community the city cleared away to build the first public park in the United States. Downtown, in Greenwich Village, James J. Walker Park was built on the former St. John’s Burial Ground, which buried more than 10,000 bodies between 1799 and 1858. In 1895, “the city just took it by eminent domain,” Meade said. Only the bodies of well-known New Yorkers were moved. The rest remained.
At the time, city dwellers “started to blame cemeteries for urban diseases,” which led officials to pass a series of laws that banned interments in Manhattan. In 1823, they banned burials below modern Grand and Canal Streets. But soon, the ban extended to 14th Street, then 86th Street, until you couldn’t break new burial ground in Manhattan at all.
“There were always people who fought against it,” Meade said of this development. They lost. “I don’t know if that was just capitalism and land value winning over, but the city had a lot of power.”
In Pennsylvania, historic burial grounds have undergone a similar transformation, said Doug Mooney, the president of the Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, a non-profit organization that educates locals about the history beneath their streets. He said there are at least 14 parks and playgrounds built on former cemeteries in the city of brotherly love.
“Each one has their own story,” Mooney said.
William Penn designed Philadelphia from scratch in the 1680s. His original plan organized the Center City district around five squares. At least three of them—Washington, Franklin, and Logan Squares—now contain human remains.
“Washington Square was initially laid out as a public space,” Mooney said. But in 1705, the family of Joseph Carpenter, who had leased the land so his animals could graze, got the city’s permission to bury their kin in the center of the square. “Certainly thereafter it became the city’s primary potters’ field.” It accepted thousands of burials—few of them marked by headstones, and instead commemorated with wooden crosses and stones—before closing in 1794. Within a decade, locals were agitating to transform it back into a public park.
“Without any kind of visual ways of setting this out a cemetery, it was very easy for the city to say, ‘Yep, this is going to be a park,’” Mooney said.
The same thing happened less than a mile south, at Weccacoe Playground. In 1810, Richard Allen of Mother Bethel AME Church founded the city’s first non-denominational Christian cemetery on the site. “It was in constant use until 1864,” Mooney said, accepting the remains of black Philadelphians whose bodies were banned from other, segregated burial plots. The church buried an estimated 5,000 bodies in just a quarter-acre. Once it closed, it rented out the land for different uses, until all evidence of a graveyard was beaten down by people, draft animals, and carts. In 1890, the church sold the land to the city for use as a pocket park.
For more than a century, few thought twice about the ground beneath Weccacoe. But in 2013, Mooney and his crew were able to show there were still thousands of bodies on the site—some of them under a community building that currently houses toilets for playground visitors. “This became a cause célèbre,” Mooney said. “There was a group of influential people who went to the city of Philadelphia and said, we need to commemorate this site.”
The city eventually appointed a committee to reevaluate the use of the land, said Kelly Lee, Philadelphia’s chief cultural officer and executive director of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. It’s already closed the community building, which will eventually be dismantled by hand. It will move a tennis court, which currently stretches over the burial lot, to another part of the playground. And it’s currently evaluating submissions from artists around the world for a piece of public art that will commemorate the history of the site. “It’s great to believe in it, but it’s another thing when… you create the funding to get this project done,” Lee said.
Even out west, where land can seem limitless, the municipal reuse continues. In California, beach towns like San Diego and Ventura have memorial parks, following a 1957 law that allowed the government to mow down tombstones in abandoned cemeteries and easily convert the land into public greenspace. Colorado has one park with an unusually dark backstory: In the 1890s, Denver decided to turn a cemetery into the sprawling Cheesman Park. It paid undertaker E.P. McGovern $1.90 for each body he and his crew removed, but McGovern split up the bodies and put the parts into several child-sized caskets to make more money. Rather than hire someone new to finish the job, the city fired McGovern and leveled the land. By current estimates, at least 2,000 bodies remain.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with turning a cemetery into a park. Often, it’s done as a sign of respect to the bodies there, as parkland is seen as welcoming, restful, and in keeping with democratic values. New York City’s current potter’s field, Hart Island, is the final resting place for more than 1 million bodies. It’s traditionally been run by the Department of Corrections, which operates it like a “prison of the dead,” where visitation is strictly controlled and Rikers Island inmates dig the graves (now in personal protective equipment, due to the pandemic). But in December, city council passed a law that will eventually transfer the land to the Department of Parks.
“This is about giving respect and dignity to the people who are buried on the island,” Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez said in a committee hearing.
Whether Hart Island succeeds as a park or not depends on how the city chooses to acknowledge the sordid history embedded in the earth. Instead of throwing tombstones away or obscuring the stories of the dead, a successful cemetery-to-park transition requires planners to bring this buried knowledge back to the surface. Everyone who walks here should know about the bones beneath.