Should Washington Square Park Identify 20,000 Dead Bodies Beneath it?

James Jackson Headstone discovered Washington Square Park 2009
James Jackson Headstone 1799

This time of year seems to rile and unearth the dead bodies beneath Washington Square Park. It is believed up to 20,000 bodies lie beneath this Greenwich Village park, dating back to when the space was a “Potter’s Field.” Days before Halloween in 2009, a tombstone was discovered from 1799 during Phase II redesign construction (story first reported here at this blog). Last year around All Souls’ Day, two intact burial vaults and skeletal remains were discovered underneath the park during water main construction.

Will anything be discovered this year? Are the spirits crying out for attention? They might be as they sure are not getting it by way of the park’s signage.

Recently, reader Mike Dedrick commented, “Hello: Are there any markers that tell visitors that they are walking over an estimated 20,000 graves?,” continuing:

These were poor people, slaves, indians and victims of yellow fever. I have been to Washington Square many times and this history is not really public knowledge.

Any sign should include the basic facts-that the park was built over the bodies of poor people, slaves, and what few Indians were left after the Dutch and English settlers colonized New York. This is hallowed ground, and while the park department is obviously not going to dig up the park to locate the graves, the city should at least acknowledge that this in fact is a cemetery. It is a matter of respect and history. Expanded signage would make the park a more interesting place, and give it a highlighted place in the NY story.

“Historical” Signs placed at Washington Square Park promote selective history

New long-awaited “historical” signs went up at Washington Square Park in 2015 (there is one near the Arch entrance along the fence). Curiously, there is no mention of the bodies underneath the park:

Washington Square Park history Parks Department signage

The land was once a marsh fed by Minetta Brook located near an Indian village known as Sapokanikan. In 1797 the City’s Common Council acquired the land for use as a “Potter’s Field” and for public executions, giving rise to the legend of the “Hangman’s Elm” in the park’s northwest corner.
Washington Square Park Parks Department signage
These signs, like most things related to the redesign of the park, have a murky history. The signs were discussed at length over the years and were supposed to be vetted by the Parks Committee of local Community Board 2.

Four “historical markers” were scheduled to be placed within the park. In February of 2015, Washington Square Park Administrator Sarah Neilson discussed the signs before C.B.2’s Parks Committee; referring to the text, she said: “It is taking a long time editing it.”

By April of 2015, the signs were up; the text never was run by the Community Board. When you see the signs and their ode to controversial re-designer George Vellonakis, you can understand why. Interestingly, the signs are dated January 2015, a month before Neilson stated publicly that they were still being edited.

There is one sign (above) devoted to the history of the park and a sign devoted to activist Shirley Hayes. One thing I will say they look much better than what was run by the Landmarks Preservation Commission. (Can they just change the look of them without running it by the LPC again? Hmmm.)

View more about the saga of these signs here.

Then there is this gem as it relates to the redesign of Washington Square Park:

“After an intensive analysis of the park’s historical development and a process of community input unprecedented in scope the park was rebuilt in a three-phase renovation designed by landscape architect George Vellonakis.”

I suppose the Parks Department thinks if they keep saying that the “process” with regards to “community input” was “unprecedented in scope,” it will become true. And placing George Vellonakis’s name on these signs is a bit perplexing. No wonder it took so long to write them! You can read the full text of them here.

The rewritten history
The rewritten history:

Back in 2009, then-Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told The New York Times that the unearthed tombstone of James Jackson from 1799 would be placed in the park but at some point that decision was reversed. Not sure where that tombstone is now.

(There is also a new tacky sign near the Arch entrance, more on that to come.)

Halloween: Park Closed Again?

According to the Parks Department, the park will be closed tonight Halloween night. Last year, a surprise to me, the park was open! It should be open. [Update: the park was scheduled to close at 8 p.m. last night. Is it possible that the information was erroneous from last year? Unclear.] Not sure why the reverse in course but the agency press office says this is an NYPD decision. (See this post about the closing of the park on Halloween and the parade from 2011.)

The NYU Children’s Halloween Parade presented with C.B. 2 takes off from the fountain at 3 p.m.

* * *

Previously at Washington Square Park Blog:

The Skeletons of Washington Square Park November 2, 2015

19th Century Burial Vault With Skeletal Remains Found Under Washington Square Park During Water Main Construction November 5, 2015

Second 19th Century Burial Vault, Coffins & Bones Discovered Under Washington Square Park November 6, 2015

Three Years Since Tombstone of James Jackson Dating Back to 1799 Discovered During Washington Square Park Construction October 26, 2012

More on Tombstone Discovery At Washington Square Park Which Could Date Back to 18th Century — Update: Confirmed! October 26, 2009

Top Photo: NYC Parks
Other photos: Cathryn

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