From the archives: The past lives of city parks as potter’s fields


Wonder if there moviegoers making a mad dash for lawn space at Bryant Park's summer film festival were aware the area adjacent the the New York Public Library was once a cemetery? Photo: Bryant Park

Wonder if these moviegoers making a mad dash for lawn space at Bryant Park’s summer film festival were aware the area adjacent the the New York Public Library was once a cemetery? Photo: Bryant Park

NOTE: This was originally published in 2014. We are republishing it in light of the tragic need for mass burials on Hart Island again as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As we mentioned last week, the 238th anniversary of the Battle of Brooklyn is tomorrow, and for the past 106 years, part of the commemoration of this Revolutionary War skirmish, fought along the East River in Brooklyn Heights, has included a memorial service at the Prison Ship Martyrs monument in Fort Greene Park. I first learned of this time-honored tradition while researching this story two years ago on the Society of Old Brooklynites, the organization that’s overseen the tribute since President Taft was in office and dedicated the cylindrical stone  statue in memory of the 11,500 colonists who perished aboard British prison ships docked in New York Harbor in 1776.

Solemnity aside, the part of this story that really gave me goosebumps was the point when Ted General, a member of SOB (somehow I feel like that acronym was intentional), explained that the monument was more than just a marker–it was also a tomb. “Their bones were scooped up from Wallabout Bay along the shoreline there where the waves had exposed them after a while, and they were put into this crypt in Fort Greene Park,” is what the General told me at the time. I found this cemetery-within-a-city-park concept more than a little morbid–something I’m not opposed to in everyday life–but then I started looking, and it turns out, some of the city’s most popular places to read books, sunbathe, host birthday parties and let our dogs roam free, started out as potter’s fields. 

Hart Island off the shores of Pelham Bay Park, may now be known as the Island of the Dead, but just over 200 years ago, similar sentiments could have been shared about Washington Square, Union Square, Madison Square, Sara D. Roosevelt and Bryant Parks, which were originally purchased by the city to serve as burial grounds for New Yorkers unable to afford final resting places. This included the 20,000 people still buried below Washington Square Park–most of whom were victims of yellow fever in the late 1700s. Their remains were never removed and the current park was just designed over them. Washington Park also served as a public gallows at one point, which the New York Public Library says was somewhere near the park’s present-day fountain.

By comparison, the history of Bryant Park’s potter’s field—a term with biblical roots that refers to land too poor to farm, but perfectly suitable for potters to extract clay from, or to use as a mass grave—doesn’t seem as macabre. For 17 years, the land adjacent to the New York Public Library did serve as a cemetery though, which makes you rethink watching outdoor movies on its lawn or doing corpse pose during one of its free yoga classes doesn’t it? It was decommissioned in 1840 to make room for the Croton Distributing Reservoir.

Madison Square Park served as Manhattan’s original potter’s field prior to Washington Square Park, and Union Square closed its grounds for burials in 1807. 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. This piece by former Brooklyn Based writer Allison Meier asking why the city’s Second African Burial Ground still remains largely undocumented is worth a read.

While most of the potter’s field-to-park transformations took place in Manhattan to give increasingly affluent New Yorkers open space to recreate around the turn of the 19th century, it appears New York is not quite finished refashioning final resting places as new public spaces. This time it’s happening here in Brooklyn. A former cemetery for more than 2,000 marines and naval shipman and their families in the Brooklyn Navy Yard is in the process of being turned into a 1.7 acre public green space by the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative. Anyone planning to enjoy the new outdoor space when it’s finished, however, can do so with a somewhat clearer conscious—all the remains from the area were disinterred almost a hundred years ago.

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