One of my favorite cemeteries in New York is so small, I must have walked by it dozens of times in my travels before I first noticed it.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve missed it too. Lined by residential buildings, it’s only natural to assume the short stretch of fencing on the south side of West 11th Street to be the courtyard entrance to an apartment, or maybe a back patio.
But if you take a moment to look closer…
…you’ll find what has to be the smallest graveyard in Manhattan.
How small is it? Just big enough to hold about 30 graves bordering on a worn, moss-covered brick path.
But perhaps even more unusual is its irregular shape: a long, thin triangle. How did this strange little graveyard come to be??
The West 11th Street graveyard is all that remains of the Second Cemetery of the Spanish & Portuguese Synagogue of the Congregation Shearith Israel. Shearith Israel, the first Jewish congregation in North America, was founded in 1654; the cemetery dates to 1805.
Back then, West 11th Street stopped before reaching Sixth Avenue, and the cemetery would have been positioned something like this.
Below is an 1817 map showing both the then-existing streets (in pink), along with how the encroaching grid pattern would soon transform them. The cemetery was said to run along Milligan Street, identified below as the second-down pink street.
In 1830, West 11th Street was extended through the cemetery to Sixth Avenue, leaving only the southern corner and a bit of the northern corner (now gone). The angle is so sharp, the cemetery actually stretches in front of the neighboring brownstone.
Most of the graves line the walls of the cemetery, many secured into the crumbling brick by cement or iron hooks. After nearly 200 years, much of the writing is illegible.
The Second Cemetery was founded as a sort-of secondary site to the congregation’s main burial ground in Chatham Square, specifically for those who died of illnesses like yellow fever, or didn’t have a direct connection to the temple.
Two graves in particular stand out as you peer through the fence: first, this obelisk, which belongs to Joshua Cantor, a Danish-born painter who moved to New York City in 1822 and died in 1828.
The second is this faded above-ground tomb – I couldn’t make out the name from the street:
One grave has been restored: Ephraim Hart, who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Since I first found it, I always stop to glance in whenever I walk down West 11th Street.
Not that I expect anything to be different. In fact, that’s what makes the little graveyard on West 11th Street so special: the final gasp of existence of a West Village that is no more, a time when cow pastures were just down the street and local children would hop the fence to steal fruit from the apple trees growing in the cemetery. In fact, it really isn’t hard to picture this brick path continuing on for a ways.
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