The Bones Beneath Washington Square
Keith Riegert, Managing Editor
On one of the last warm days of the season, just before Halloween, I walked from work down Fifth Avenue, beneath the arch and through Washington Square Park to school. The park, still barely lit by the sun, was humming—students chatted on benches, folk, jazz and bluegrass musicians played all at once, just out of earshot of one another and dozens of families enjoyed a last warm afternoon together. As far as New York City goes, Washington Square Park is among the best refuges from the crush of city life. But staring up at the arch in the fading fall light, I could only think of one nagging fact: Beneath the oversized bubbles, chalk-written pavement and rolling lawns, there are a lot of bodies.
Yup, in the earth under Washington Square Park, you’ll find the bones of 20,000 New Yorkers.
As a rule, digging down a couple feet anywhere in New York is bound to pull up something startling. History in this cramped city is caked beneath your feet as thick as the grime is. But there’s no story quite as bizarre as Washington Square Park’s. To find out more of the strange history of our neighboring green space, I interviewed Greg Young and Tom Meyers, creators of the hit podcast “The Bowery Boys”. Started in 2007, when podcasting was still in its infancy, “The Bowery Boys” have been sharing in-depth explorations of the gritty, mysterious history of New York City, from its Dutch New-Amsterdam roots to its present-day incarnation. And Washington Square Park was among the first places they covered; for obvious reasons—the history of this relatively small patch of earth is mind-boggling.
When the Dutch first hunkered down on Manhattan, their settlement was crowded around the southern tip of the island (today’s Financial District) with a wall (now Wall Street) separating what had originally been a Lenape Native American settlement from the growing trading outpost. Eventually, the land that is now Washington Square Park was turned over to freed Dutch slaves, an event that marks the turning point in the park’s history from Colonially uncomfortable to downright unnerving. As Greg Young puts it, “While the Dutch did allow freed slaves a modicum of control over their lives–ownership and tending to their own farms, for instance–there was an ulterior motive. Farm plots around the area of Washington Square would have been far outside the walls of the city (i.e where Wall Street is today), so these communities would have been a buffer if, for instance, native Lenape tribes or members of neighboring colony wanted to attack.”
The Burial Ground
Under British control during the 1700s, the city, now renamed for York, became a crucial port of trade. The city boomed in population from just 6,000 residents in the first decades of the 1700s to 80,000 by 1800. Unfortunately, population growth in an era not known for its accomplishments in the sanitary sciences, led to a wave of disasters. “Due to New York’s prominence as a port city—and an overcrowded one at that—it was highly susceptible to disease with yellow fever epidemics sweeping through the city during the summer months. The city authorized a new cemetery for yellow fever and other epidemic victims near the edge of Minetta Creek which once wound itself from the area of today’s Chelsea to the West Village, cutting through this area that would become Washington Square,” says Young. The potter’s field became home to an estimated 20,000 New Yorkers who had been claimed by poverty or in the epidemics, the remains of whom are still being found during routine excavation.
From Parade Ground to Park
In 1826, the cemetery was leveled and reborn as a military parade ground for city militias, but the newly designated open space, according to Young, “soon attracted the wealthiest New Yorkers who built luxurious townhouses along its edges. The roots of the Fifth Avenue social register began here–literally. It’s at the start of Fifth Avenue that a temporary arch was erected in 1889 on the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of George Washington as president of the United States. People loved the arch so much that a permanent version was constructed in 1892.”
That Time Moses Tried to Part the Park
While the park that exists now is very similar to the1890s version, it almost wasn’t so. In the 1950s New York’s notorious urban planner, Robert Moses, hell-bent on making New York an East Coast version of Los Angeles, attempted to drive Fifth Avenue straight through Washington Square Park and continue the roadway to the water. But where Moses had succeeded in the past (I curse you, BQE), he failed badly here: “residents and activists did more than reject Moses’ bid; they turned the park into a forever car-free zone,” Young says.
The Heart of Greenwich
Finally, it was around the reign of Robert Moses that Washington Square Park became the cultural oasis it is today Young says, “starting in the 1950s, the park became a place for musicians and artists to gather, soon fostering the Greenwich Village music scene. Sunday ‘hootenanies’ drew hundreds to the park where many icons of rock and folk music honed their crafts. Writers, poets and photographers soon got into the act. Washington Square is still a great force of creativity, and even today you can spend an afternoon here experiencing the various talents of New Yorkers.”
If you think about it, it truly is incredible that a park sitting on less than ten acres of land could boast such a tumultuous, heartbreaking and downright fascinating history. But that’s New York.
Did You Know? From The Bowery Boys
- Dutch settler Yellis Mandeville named his farm Greenwijck (Dutch for Pine District). When the British took over, they simply tweaked the title a bit. . .to Greenwich.
- The tree that is believed to be the oldest in Manhattan sits in the northwest side of Washington Square Park.
- There’s a staircase inside the Washington Square Arch with access to the roof.
- Mark Twain once lived a couple blocks away from the park and frequently strolled through it in his famous white suit.
If you’re interested in hearing more amazing history about New York, check out “The Bowery Boys” on iTunes, wherever you get your podcasts or at their website www.boweryboyshistory.com. (I highly suggest the walking tour of Washington Square Park.) Greg and Tom’s first book, “The Bowery Boys: Adventures in Old New York” will be released next year.