In our Many Layers of History series, we look at the history around intersections in our neighborhood which correspond to that day’s date. Well, 11/21 does not correspond to any intersection in the Village (and barely to an intersection in Chelsea before 11th Avenue turns to the West Side Highway), but there is a strong connection between 11th Street and 21st Street which lies buried underneath. These streets are the sites of the Second & Third Cemeteries of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue Shearith Israel, which we discussed in a previous post on burial sites in the Village. In honor of today’s date, we are taking a closer look at the cemeteries and the unique history they bring to the Village and Manhattan.
The Congregation Shearith Israel is a congregation of Sephardic Jewish immigrants and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America. The First Cemetery of Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue, Shearith Israel- also known as Chatham Square Cemetery– was established in 1683 at 55-57 St. James Place in Lower Manhattan. 122 years later in 1805, when the cemetery had started to exceed their allotment and push against development in Lower Manhattan, the Second Cemetery plot was purchased and established on a much larger plot that had extended into what is now 11th Street. This plot operated until 1829; during that time the establishment of the Manhattan grid system began its process of cutting through 11th Street, which once again ran aground with the bodies in that cemetery space.
A Third Cemetery space was then purchased on 98-110 West 21st Street, where those displaced bodies were re-interred. The third plot was in operation up until 1851, right before the law was passed banning burials within New York City limits (then Manhattan). Further burials post-1852 from this and its future surviving congregations took place in Glendale, Queens. A section from a 1928 New Yorker article discussing the cemeteries sums up the spaces’ histories while also highlighting their importance and reverence within their community:
“There remain two cemeteries to visit, built by descendants of the first Portuguese Jews. One of these is the tiny triangle with twenty headstones familiar to Greenwich Villagers, on Eleventh Street, east of Sixth Avenue. The cemetery of those who died by plagues, particularly the dread yellow fever of 1798, it once covered many acres. The second, on Twenty-first Street, west of Sixth, has perhaps a hundred and fifty tombstones. Burials were made here as late as 1851, although it was against the law then, and several of the bereaved families had to pay a fine of two hundred and fifty dollars. The Portuguese Jews formed the Congregation Shearith Israel whose present congregation – their synagogue is at 99 Central Park West – has repeatedly rejected offers of hundreds of thousands for the Twenty-first Street site. Once a department store wanted to arch a building over the cemetery, leaving it undisturbed, but that plan was rejected, too.” — (The New Yorker “Where Time Has Stopped,” 25 February 1928).