Washington Square Park

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I Tweeted this last week, but each time I’ve watched it (a few now) the more I want it to have a broader audience. It’s the work of one of our Writing New York students this semester. Enjoy!

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This week in Writing New York we’re still in the early twentieth century, with looks at two artistic enclaves: bohemian Greenwich Village (just before and after World War I) and the Harlem Renaissance, the subject of Cyrus’s lecture Wednesday morning.

Over the last few years we’ve pulled together some posts about the original Village bohemians that might be useful to our students or interesting to those of you who are following along at home (or arriving here via a Google image search for the Provincetown Playhouse, shown above). The main resource we’d recommend, though, is Melissa Bradshaw’s chapter on the Village in our Cambridge Companion, which our students are assigned to read this week. We can’t say enough good things about that essay and how well is anchors this unit for our course.

Previously on PWHNY, we’ve taken a look at nineteenth-century precursors to Village bohemia, including the scene at Pfaff’s, a bar at Bleecker and Broadway where Whitman hung out with the likes of the scandalous actress Adah Isaacs Mencken. The earliest description I know of a New York bohemian enclave comes slightly earlier, in Melville’s outrageous novel Pierre (1852).

Our trip through bohemian GV includes consideration of the Provincetown Players and especially Eugene O’Neill, whose play The Hairy Ape is on the syllabus. Locals will know how much buzz there’s been in the neighborhood over the demolition/reconstruction of the Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal. (See Curbed’s archive of related stories for details.) For images of the refurbished theater, click here. Earlier this semester our friend Joe Salvatore directed a trio of Provincetown originals, embedded in an original frame narrative, to launch the space’s reopening. I’d hoped to write more about that at the time, but it obviously didn’t happen. Students who attended with me or others who saw those shows are certainly welcome to comment here.

O’Neill has popped up on this blog from time to time, including yesterday, when I mentioned Ric Burns’s documentary about the playwright and included a clip from the film that showed James O’Neill in action in The Count of Monte Cristo, circa 1913. I should have included this clip from Burns’s film, which features Christopher Plummer first discussing then performing lines from the role of James Tyrone, from O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night, written in 1940 but not staged until 1956. The role, of course, is based on O’Neill’s father. The really amazing stuff comes about five minutes into this clip:

A few years ago I wrote about a set of early O’Neill plays that were staged by the Metropolitan Playhouse. I’ve also tried to imagine how Emma Goldman, whose New York circles overlapped with O’Neill’s, would have reacted to his drama. She had her own bit to say in her lectures on modern drama’s significance.

Elsewhere: Don’t miss the Bowery Boys’ post about O’Neill’s favorite bohemian dive, The Golden Swan. (He just called it the “Hell Hole.”) That last link will take you to John Sloan’s visual rendering of the place; Sloan was also involved in something I mentioned briefly in lecture: the night in January 1917 when Marcel Duchamp and friends, including Sloan, climbed Washington Square Arch and declared Greenwich Village a free and independent republic. Sloan’s “Arch Conspirators” marks that occasion.

Inspired? Check out Teri Tynes’s list of 25 radical things to do in Greenwich Village, from her blog Walking Off the Big Apple.

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Gothamist has a photo of the recently unearthed WSP tombstone and more information:

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About James Jackson, whose stone this is:

In just under a week the unearthed tombstone has been dusted off and, the NY Times reports, belongs to one James Jackson who died in September of 1799.

The New-York Historical Society believes that he resided at 19 East George Street (the former name of Market Street), and was a watchman and grocer. They say, “There are many fewer Jacksons than I would have expected in the directory. Chances are this is him.” It’s suspected he may have died from yellow fever, which was rampant in the city at the time.

The inscription on the stone, which was just 2 1/2 feet underground, reads: “Here lies the body of James Jackson, who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.” And while the body hasn’t been found yet (it may have been moved when the area was developed), parks commissioner Adrian Benepe declares: “They’re going to try to unravel the mystery of James Jackson and how the headstone came to be there,” as well as find his body.

Yes, it certainly sounds like yellow fever to me. Someone should have published a necrology, though, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find him there. Young, poor, Irish immigrants were disproportionately represented among the dead during the yellow fever epidemics of the turn of the nineteenth century. Some thought it resulted from intemperance and a heavy meat diet, but it had more to do with living in damp, unsanitary conditions or in the marshy east side, where the mosquitoes that carried the disease were more likely to breed. (It would be another century before people understood that was the case, however.)

It does seem odd for a tombstone to turn up in a potter’s field — especially one this wordy.

A passage from Anna Alice Chapin’s apocrypha-laden Greenwich Village comes to mind:

In 1795 came one of those constantly epidemics of yellow fever which used to devastate early Manhattan; and in 1797 came a worse one. Many bodies were brought from other grounds, and when the scourge of smallpox killed off two thousand persons in one short space, six hundred and sixty seven of them were laid this particular public cemetery. During one bad time the rich as well as the poor brought there, and there were nearly two thousand bodies sleeping in the Potter’s Field.

People who had died from yellow fever were wrapped in great yellow sheets before they were buried,– a curious touch of symbolism in keeping with the fantastic habit of mind which we find everywhere in the early annals of America. Mr E.N. Tailer among others can recall years later seeing the crumbling yellow folds of shrouds uncovered by breaking coffin walls, when the heavy guns placed in the Square sank weightily into the ground and crushed the trench vaults.

It would be interesting to examine, in fancy, those lost and sometimes non-existent headstones of the Field,– that is, to try to tell a few of the tales that cling about those who were buried there. But the task is difficult, and after all, tombstones yield but cheerless reading. That the sleepers in the Potter’s Field very often had not even that shelter of tombstones makes their stories the more elusive and the more melancholy.

She does go on to offer anecdotes about a few of the tombstones that were known to populate the Potter’s Field before Washington Square gentrified in the 1830s.

For more on yellow fever in 1790s New York, you could do a lot worse than read the fifth chapter of this book. (Ahem.) There’s some great stuff on page 204, for instance, which references both the death of large numbers of young Irish in 1795 and later epidemics (the worst that decade being 1798, when 2,000 died; around 500 died along with James Jackson in 1799), as well as the medical rationale for burying yellow fever victims out of town. One physician even lobbied hard to end the practice of Christian burial in the city, especially the vault-style burials at Trinity Church, which he believed were polluting the atmosphere above ground with pestilential miasma and generating the almost annual epidemics.

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Cat over at WSP Blog got the scoop on a tombstone unearthed last Friday during the newest phase of park renovations. Boldface and links are Cat’s:

Matt Kovary grew up in Greenwich Village, is working nearby and passes by the location every day. He contacted WSP Blog on Friday after walking by the Park that afternoon when he noticed that there was a large hole dug about 6 feet below the surface in the fenced-off construction area, right at the perimeter of the chain-link fence on the southern edge at Washington Square South and Sullivan Street.

According to Mr. Kovary, there were two people inside the fence, a
man and a woman, poring over and dusting off what appeared to be a tombstone
which he believed had been recovered from the hole. They were taking
pictures of it, and, when he asked whether it was indeed a tombstone,
the woman would only state that it was “sandstone,” admitting she was
not authorized to talk about it.

Mr. Kovary said that the artifact looked like “a tombstone, not unlike those you’d see at Trinity Church – but in much better condition.”
He wondered if it could have been “related to the original land owner”
and questioned whether this came from a “family cemetery” from 200 years ago or more.

Although skeletons and human bones from the Park’s time period as a “potter’s field” (1797-1825) have been discovered as recently as last year (see WSP blog entry “The Skeletons of Washington Square Park“), there seems to be less information about – and discovery related toprivate cemetery usage before the area was a New York City park.

UPDATE

Inside the Apple adds this insight:

It is well-known that the park was once a potter’s field and by
some estimates up to 20,000 people were buried there. (We write about
the park’s early history in depth in Inside the Apple.) However, what has people scratching their heads is the fact that you don’t normally find a tombstone in a potter’s field.
The
tombstone isn’t so mysterious, however. Only a portion of today’s park
was the potter’s field. As Luther Harris writes in his wonderful book, Around Washington Square:
The
land area [of the original square]…was about 6-1/4 acres, a
respectable public space, but not a grand one. Much narrower than
today’s square, the potter’s field was limited on the east by a strip of church cemeteries,
and on the west by Minetta Creek, which ran southwest from the foot of
Fifth Avenue to the corner of MacDougal and West Fourth Street. (italics added)
Thus,
it seems likely considering where the current excavations are happening
that what’s been unearthed is a tombstone from one of these church
graveyards. The Scotch Presbyterian Church owned the largest cemetery
and vehemently opposed the park’s usurpation of their land. Perhaps
this is one of their brethren? We await a full report.

So do we. What a fun Halloween gift!

Previously on AHNY.

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This is just one of the great snapshots you’ll find of the new, supposedly improved Washington Square Park if you hop on over to the WSP Blog, which has been a rallying place and an informational clearninghouse for opponents of the park’s redesign. The project, a joint effort (heh heh, WSP … joint!) betwen NYU and the city, took almost two years and cost somewhere between $15 and $20 million. The most controversial features were the removal of historical trees, a decrease in the number of conversation nooks or alcoves, and the shifting of the fountain itself in order to align it with Fifth Avenue and the arch.

Reactions, at least in comments on the WSP Blog, are mixed. Some welcome the face lift. Others have noted a renewed vigilance among park rangers, who’ve apparently been handing out tickets to kids playing football or dipping their feet in the fountain. Somebody’s asking for a sit in!

WSP Blog also reminds readers that just because everything looks nice and pretty, that doesn’t mean there weren’t legitimate reasons to oppose redevelopment plans along the way:

Of course, there were things to oppose. There were serious issues of non-transparency, evasiveness, lies and minimal consideration to community concerns by the NYC Parks Department along the way. There did not have to be such acrimony.
That could all have been avoided if the Parks Department had given true
consideration to some of the changes a majority of the Community asked
for. Yes, people will use the Park but there is a level of bitterness that will never go away. That didn’t have to be. If the Parks Department, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe, et al, would realize that in retrospect, and perhaps going forward, then there might be something gained from this.

Have you been yet? What do you think?

Previously on AHNY.  

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