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Published: August 14, 2020

Erasing Death and Memory in New York City

Rukshan Vathupola M.Arch I 2020

The commemoration of the dead and their memorialization in landscape is the origin of some of the oldest rituals and temporal representations in human history and beyond. With the passage of thousands of years, monuments and memorials have come to represent far more than the dead that they have been made to honour. They serve as lightning rods, drawing in the force of feelings and questions concerning the established norms and narratives surrounding historical veneration, humanization and ultimately remembrance. From these examinations we are able to discern both the aesthetic values assigned to these memorials, as well as the qualities an individual must possess for a society to raise and preserve a monument for them. However, by neglecting the legacies of remembrance for marginalized individuals we are made to forget troubled histories, remain ignorant of injustices left unconfronted and are therefore unable to address their consequences in the present. New York City in particular has developed an intimate, yet problematic relationship with the memorialization of its dead, from its establishment as New Amsterdam in 1624 and throughout its growth into the megacity of the modern day.

The earliest known colonial burial site was known as the Old Cemetery, even in 1656, and exists today beneath the foundations of the modern Financial District. The second public burial ground, built under English Rule and outside the city’s defensive wall, now lies beneath Trinity Church near Wall Street. As the city grew, from a remote trading outpost on the edge of a colonial empire into a modern metropolis, these expansive forces have consistently overpowered the sanctity of its sacred resting places. This destruction of burial sites then serves as a form of historical erasure. By removing the material and temporal legacy of certain New Yorkers it pacifies a difficult and often brutal history that results in the propagation of narratives around the remembrance of the privileged few. Those who have been lucky enough to have their graves left unturned and their bodies left unpierced by foundations of steel and concrete.

However, by denoting the “beginning” of this site with the arrival of the Dutch and the founding of the colonial city this work also participates in a form of historical erasure. Countless Indeginous communities, such as the Lenape, have lived within the boundaries of what would become New York City, modifying its landscapes and boundaries with the burial of their dead. However as a result of history privileging the literary record an utterly one sided image of this past remains to us from the colonial side. And it denotes an often contentious relationship between the colonists and Indigenious peoples, with sites of remembrance being marked by conflict, massacres, and disease. One of the few per-colonial burial grounds that has not been obliterated by New York’s ever expanding grid is that of Ward’s point on the southern tip of Staten Island.

Since the founding of the city, the greatest victims of memorial erasure have been African-Americans, Indigenious communities, the urban poor, and immigrants who have made it their home over the last half millennia. In 1667, a great deal of the city's colonial populace were buried together in a public burial ground established by the English. However in October of 1697 with the construction and consecration of Trinity Church over that same land, new regulations were established to prevent the burials of African-Americans in what would be newly sacred grounds. Slavery had exsited in New York as early as 1629, and as a result a substantial portion of the city’s population was composed of African-American, Mixed-Race, and Indigenious slaves, along with a few freeman families whose labour allowed for the great commercial and infrastructural development of the young metropolis. The need for a new burial ground thus pushed these marginalized groups to the fringes of the city. This led them to burying their loved ones on a few acres of unclaimed communal land known as the Commons further North. This cemetery subsequently became known as the “Negroes Burying Ground”.

By 1776 the free and majority enslaved Black population had grown to be around 20% of the city and between 10,000-20,000 people had since been interned in the burial grounds. This was the single largest colonial era cemetery for African-Americans in the second largest slave holding city in the country, with nearly 42% of the citizenry owning slaves. During this time New York had also grown on the backs of the enslaved Black and poor immigrant populations. They were the ones who built the city's fortifications on Wall Street, they were the ones who expanded Manhattan east through landfill, they cleared woodland, and built the transportation infrustruce by constructing roads and shipping docks. To accommodate its rapidly growing urban population several pauper’s, or potter’s, fields were established on the rural outskirts of the city. These were public grounds to bury the poor, minorities, victims of epidemics, and executed criminals who were often hanged on nearby gallows. However, prejudice towards these marginalized communities continued even in death and this tension soon culminated in the Doctors Riots of 1788. For several years medical students, pejoratively named “Resurrection men”, had been grave robbing these cemeteries to procure fresh cadavers for dissection at Columbia College. This led several freedmen to petition the Common Council on February 3rd, 1788 to put legislation in place to prevent the further desecration of their deceased loved ones, to which no action was taken. These lingering resentments boiled over in April when the rumors spread that the body of a white woman had been stolen and cut up, this resulted in a mob of nearly 5,000 descending upon the medical college and the hospital to seize the physicians and students responsible. In the ensuing chaos and clashes between the protesters and militia somewhere between 3-20 people were killed. This act of civil disobedience then resulted in legislation being passed by the Council to prevent the disturbance and removal of the deceased from these cemeteries.

Despite this legal acknowledgement, in a preserve turn of events in the following decades several of these burial grounds were closed by the Common Council to make way for the growing city grid. A nearby freshwater source known as Collect Pond had become contaminated by the commercial waste from the expansion of industry, and in the process of leveling the polluted ground the “Negroes Burying Ground '' and all of its graves was also erased. A pauper's fields and gallows sites further North was transformed into public green space in a plan to pacify its sordid past and raise surrounding property values. Soon after it became a site for the 50th anniversary celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence and was renamed Washington Square Park. It is estimated that there are still around 20,000 people buried beneath the Park to this day. Other paupers fields soon followed suit, becoming the modern day Madison Square and Bryant Parks, this includes what is now the New York Public Library. In October of 1991, as the excavation for the foundations of a new Federal Office building began in Civic Center several hundred bodies were soon unearthed by workmen. When it was discovered that these were the remains from the once lost African Burying Ground, protests and civic demonstrations from the African-American, and Native American communities in New York and beyond pushed to prevent any further construction and called for the creation of a memorial. This struggle resulted in the creation of the African Burial Ground National Monument where nearly 500 dead were re-interred and publicly commemorated after being forgotten for nearly two centuries. However this fell short of the desires of the demonstrators who called for the bodies reinterred in the land and the creation of a museum on the site, the resulting monument was seen as an object of pacification towards both the African-American community and the history that produced the burial grounds. Even though these burial grounds have been uncovered there are multitudes of sacred sites that have been consumed by the expansion, as well as the greening of the city. To this day there are cemeteries belonging to historically marginalized communities that have been erased to make way for locations of leisure like Central Park and the growth of almost every borough in New York City.

At the time of writing this article nearly 650,000 people have died due to the Coronavirus, with the American dead numbering close to 150,000. New York City, an epicenter for this unfolding tragedy has lost nearly 23,000 people so far. When a loved one dies, we are often made more aware of their body than ever for the physical rituals we must undertake to commemorate their lives and prepare them for burial. From the point of their death we are made acutely aware of where they are, where they are going and finally where they shall be laid down to rest. However, there are often millions who die and are left unclaimed by loved ones due to poverty, prejudice, homelessness, misfortune, and even institutional failure to contact their families in time. As a result of this pandemic we are again reminded of the reality of this neglect as hundreds of “unclaimed dead” are taken to be buried on Hart Island. It is New Yorker’s last remaining pauper’s field and the rest place of over 1,000,000 people.

After the creation of Madison Square Park, Bryant Park and the destruction of other pauper’s fields, Hart Island became the main city cemetery for the “unclaimed” dead in 1869. Since its inception the burial grounds have run on discounted penitentiary labour, with inmates being tasked to bury the bodies of dozens of men, women and infants over the last 150 years, often 3 layers deep. Throughout its time as a cemetery the island has also accrued several legacies from the other institutions that have capitalized off its isolation from the mainland. Today there are ruins from its time as a mental asylum for women, a brutal boys home, an epidemic quarantine hospital and a prison from the Civil War era. For a short time there was also purportedly a proposed “Negro Coney Island” built in 1925 to service the burgeoning Harlem community, before concerns about prisoners fleeing led the city to condem and seize the property. However to this day the island remains largely closed, and inmates who more often than not come from these poor, African-American, and disenfranchised communities continue to bury the dead who often come from the same. As a result of this isolation it has caused a lot of pain for the families of those that wish to simply visit and be closer to their loved ones. This was highlighted during the height of the AIDS crisis, as Funeral Directors were directed to not handle the bodies of the dead due to an unfounded fear that they might continue to spread the virus.As a result many mothers and daughters, fathers and sons were removed from their homes and interned on an island forever removed from their families. This was often done without the knowledge or consent of their loved ones, as result of institutionalized prejudice towards the urban poor, minorities and the LGBT+ community as well as hysteria born out of a public health crisis. Today efforts are being made to name and map and memorialize all those that are buried there, and fight for the right of families to visit the deceased through the Hart Island Project. As the Coronavirus continues to highlight systematic failures of our institutions in assisting the most vulnerable amongst us, we must not then overlook the dignity and continued humanity they still possess even in death. We must not continue this process of removing their right to be named, their right to be memorialized and their right to be remembered as somebody’s everything.

Today the most present aspect of remembrance imparted upon New York City can be seen in the multitude of important figures that have given their names to the growing city. However with the destruction of spaces for the historically disenfranchised in this landscape, a twisted history begins to emerge from the names of those that the city chooses to uphold and venerate. Bayard, Beekman, Clarkson, DeLancy, DePeyster, Duane, Houston, Moore, Mott, Pike, Reade, Rutgers, Schermerhorn, Stuyvesant, Van Cortlandt, Vandam, York. If we allow for the proliferation of institutions, monuments, and infrastructures that continue to honor slaveholders, racists, the murders of Indigengious peoples, bigots, nativists, and the exploiters of the poor then our common history shall remain perpetually obscured by the fog of power and privilege. Because it only allows for those select stories of the privileged few to be remembered and humanized, leading to the erasure of those millions of marginalized individuals who contributed their lives to shaping our histories, politics, and landscapes. In order for true justice, reconciliation, and reparations to come we must examine the hidden narratives of white supremacy and minority erasure that permeate our everyday environments and confront the legacies they uphold. As this new cycle of social and community justice comes down, we must hold New York City and the greater world accountable for the legacies and continued pratices of systematic racism and discrimination that have earsed the legacies of so many communities from our histories and our landscapes.