The Smallest Graveyard In Manhattan

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.

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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.

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But if you take a moment to look closer…

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…you’ll find what has to be the smallest graveyard in Manhattan.

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How small is it? Just big enough to hold about 30 graves bordering on a worn, moss-covered brick path.

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But perhaps even more unusual is its irregular shape: a long, thin triangle. How did this strange little graveyard come to be??

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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.

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Back then, West 11th Street stopped before reaching Sixth Avenue, and the cemetery would have been positioned something like this.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The second is this faded above-ground tomb – I couldn’t make out the name from the street:

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One grave has been restored: Ephraim Hart, who fought in the Revolutionary War.

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Since I first found it, I always stop to glance in whenever I walk down West 11th Street.

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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.

-SCOUT

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34 comments

  1. For a short while in the early ’90s, I lived on Washington St between Barrow and Morton, and that’s when I discovered this cemetery. I, too, used to pause at it every time I passed. It’s lovely and a little mysterious.

  2. Well, there’s my lunchtime walk for today! I have surely missed this in the past, but will seek it out today. Thanks!

  3. There is a Jewish one in Hawthorne, NJ that is just incredible…it’s not terribly large and it seems to have fallen in disrepair…many of the monuments are broken and/or underground. It has an incredible gated entry and a large monument with a plaque. Any interest in pix or learning more about it? It sits next to a dutch cemetery that has also been all but forgotten with monuments/stones that are even more buried and evidence that some buried there were infants and very young children.

  4. What, in your opinion, are the best places in New York to visit in the fall? It is my favorite season, the colors, the weather, the smells, and I haven’t taken part in any fall festivities yet! The first week of November is mine and my boyfriend’s 1 year anniversary, and I want to do something fun and outdoors. Most Halloween events will be over, but are there any places you would suggest to just enjoy the season?

    Thank you!

    I love your blog! I check it everyday. I am currently studying film and television and I work at a location agency. There is no place like New York.

  5. Coincidentally, a similar fate befell the seventeenth-century First Shearith Cemetery on Chatham Square.

  6. So was the other section of the cemetery bricked over? Were the coffins moved?

  7. First saw this in 1985 and didn’t see it again till this year. I love old NY mixed with the new. These were lives in our town. We will be gone and forgotten but these will be seen for decades to come

  8. As a brand new New Yorker with a fascination for this city’s past, I am thrilled to have found your blog.

  9. It’s an interesting area. Buildings at 6th Avenue and 11th Street have odd angles that originally accommodated a long lost road through the area. Nearby was a tavern called the Grapevine that gave rise to the phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” and ultimately the hit Motown song.

  10. Kudos to your blog and your work for capturing history before it is bulldozed.

  11. A third Shearith Israel cemetery can be found on W 21st west of 6th Avenue.

  12. and what about the one on st. james st. in chinatown?

  13. While this is their second cemetery still remaining. It is actually their third cemetery. The location of the congregation’s first cemetery is unknown and was possibility in the vicinity of what is now called the African Burial Ground.

  14. Actually, I believe Shearith Israel (now on 70th Street and Central Park West) keeps excellent records and knows everyone who is (and was) buried in the cemetery.

  15. Based on the gardening equipment it looks as if the cemetery’s still getting regular maintenance. That’s more than one can say for many old cemeteries.

    Do you know what the historical plaque on the next-door brownstone says?

    • Peter, I made a similar observation as you did. Is there a specific organization or person that oversees the maintenance of this cemetery? If so who or whom would that be?

      • A prior comment noted that the synagogue is still around, on the Upper West Side, so presumably it handles maintenance, for example by having its janitor stop by every once in a while.

  16. What an incredible find due to your observation Nick, such a poignant post and so heartening that there are still little pockets of living history. thanks Nick!

  17. So where are the remains from the original cemetary before the downsize?

  18. Wonder what happen to the graves where the road is now? Do you think they just paved over them?

  19. That’s not the smallest graveyard in Manhattan. Come to my Madison Square tour Sunday at 11. Free. Meet at the Seward statue. Sponsored by the Flatiron/23rd St. Partnership. I’ll show you a graveyard with just one guy.

  20. on a haunted west village walking tour i took a few years ago, we stopped by this cemetery. it was interesting to learn that, for religious reasons, the only graves that could be moved were the ones in the way of the street that was being built. so literally some of the graves run underneath the sidewalk there.

  21. Love this site went to the Hawthorne cemetary today live about 1 mile from it never knew it was there . Dead end street right on the side of the Moutain.

  22. Just stumbled across this post. Have you ever stumbled across the *First* Shearith israel cemetery in Manhattan? It’s in an incredibly obscure place in Chinatown, near the old Five Points, and is one of the only remainants of 17th Century Manhattan.

  23. Though much larger, there’s also the cemetery that’s part of St. Patrick’s Old Cathedral at 263 Mulberry St. just south of Houston. It was made famous (for me at least) in Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS. It’s where Keitel and De Niro break into to have a private talk toward the end of the film. Always loved when Keitel as Charlie takes out his handkerchief first and lays it on the grave before sitting down. A beautifully observed piece of business from that culture…

  24. well, there is are a fewer even smaller grave yards in lower Manhattan. How about the entrance between the buildings on 2nd Avenue next to the Provenzano Lanza Funeral Home….between East 2nd and 3rd Street? the interesting thing about his place is the spaces in back of the buildings up to 5th Street, where there are the vestiges of a much larger grave yard….this is only a block away from the famous NYC Marble Cemetery which is only a small preserved relic of a much larger lower Manhattan Cemetery….And I think the little Sephardic Cemetery at 5 Points is actually much smaller than the one in the article.

  25. Just an obscure historical note: the brick paths were laid down about 1982 by a neighbor and myself who salvaged the bricks from the façade of 838 Greenwich Street which was taken down and replaced by a non-descript brown brick during its conversion to an apartment house.

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