New York

When Washington Square Was a Burial Ground

Good morning. It’s Friday. Today we’ll find out why the Parks Department is honoring a man named James Jackson in Washington Square Park. We’ll also get details on a proposal from Mayor Eric Adams that could clear the way for as many as 100,000 new homes.

Credit…Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Credit…New York City Department of Parks & Recreation

Mention Washington Square Park, and you might think of Stanford White’s great dignified arch from the 19th century. Or maybe a Henry James novel, an Edward Hopper painting or a Bob Dylan song.

Today the Parks Department will dedicate a relic from an earlier time, when the 43 acres where people now stroll or hang out, playing chess or smoking pot, were used for something different: burials.

The relic is a headstone that was unearthed 14 years ago, when the department was preparing for renovations of the Sullivan Street entrance to the park. The sandstone marker was thought to have been the first discovered in decades in the park, the site of a burial ground for the poor until the 1820s.

The inscription conveys basic facts: “Here lies the body of James Jackson,” the tombstone reads, “who departed this life the 22nd day of September 1799 aged 28 years native of the county of Kildare Ireland.”

That says little about who James Jackson was. It does not say why he died or why he was buried in Washington Square Park — if he even was. Or, as Jonathan Kuhn, the Parks Department historian, put it, “We know things, and we don’t know things.”

Kuhn said Jackson had died of yellow fever. “Yellow fever epidemics plagued the city almost annually” from the 1790s to the 1820s, the medical historian Howard Markel wrote in “The Encyclopedia of New York City.” Kuhn said that yellow fever had killed more than 2,000 people in New York in 1798, and by some accounts the outbreak in 1799 — the epidemic that killed Jackson — was also unrelenting.

A public directive stipulated that all yellow fever victims were to be buried at Washington Square, adjacent to the potter’s field there, Kuhn said. In all, some 22,000 bodies were buried there. Sometimes executions were held there as well, drawing crowds. The historian Mike Wallace said in 2007 that the resident gravedigger served as the hangman.

The directive could explain why Jackson’s remains were taken there.

But the headstone was a surprise. There would have been no such markers in the potter’s field, and there has been speculation that the headstone came from a grave somewhere else.

What about Jackson himself? Who was the mystery man of Washington Square Park before Washington Square Park existed?

Kuhn said details found in ancient tax records, city directories and court files indicated that he was not indigent: He left $262, roughly $2,500 in today’s dollars, so Jackson “diverged from the common story of the pre-park land having been a potter’s field for the indigent in unmarked graves.”

Jackson worked as a watchman — a security officer in the years before the Police Department was established — but that may not have been all he did. A court record described him differently: “Be it remembered that James Jackson, merchant, appeared in court and applied to be a citizen of the United States.”

No other headstones were found, and the remains of two other people that were found at the same time as the tombstone were not Jackson’s, Kuhn said. One was a woman. The other was too young to have been Jackson. Both were reinterred at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, he said.

The potter’s field became a parade ground in the 1820s as it went through a transition from “ugly duckling to civic swan,” as Wallace described it. Burials were banned after yet another yellow fever outbreak, and bodies were taken to what is now Bryant Park.

“I can’t speak for my forebears 200 years ago and what was in their minds,” Kuhn said, “but I do know these were matters of public space. Many of our parks were created on the sites of former burial grounds, in some cases well documented, in others less so.” (The burial ground at Bryant Park was, in turn, shut down when the site was chosen for a reservoir; the remains eventually ended up on Hart Island.)


Weather

Expect partly sunny skies with temps in the in the low 70s. At night, prepare for a chance of showers with temps dropping to the high 50s.

ALTERNATE-SIDE PARKING

In effect until Monday (Yom Kippur).


The latest New York news

Credit…Juan Arredondo for The New York Times

Migrant Help

  • New jobs: The Biden administration will grant work permits to hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan migrants, a move welcomed by the leaders of big cities, especially New York.

  • Advocate for migrants: Christine Quinn, the former City Council speaker, is now a high-profile advocate on the divisive homelessness and migrant crises. That could threaten her chances with future voters.

Other News

  • Band bus crash: Two adults died and at least five people were critically injured when a bus carrying a high school marching band from Long Island crashed on a highway upstate and tumbled down an embankment.

  • Changing of the guard: Rupert Murdoch is retiring from the media empire that includes The New York Post and Fox News, leaving his son Lachlan as the sole executive in charge.

  • Sentenced to probation: Tensions ran high in a Rockland County, N.Y., courtroom as two rabbis who have admitted to recklessly starting a deadly fire at an assisted living home were spared jail time under a plea agreement.

  • Ethan Hawke discusses Gen X: At the Center for Fiction, Ethan Hawke was joined by the author Rachel Kushner and the editor Christopher Beha for a panel discussion of Harper’s Magazine’s September issue.

  • What we’re watching: Jeffery C. Mays talks to Ronda Kaysen, a New York Times real estate reporter, about the influence of large investors on first-time home buyers, and Nicholas Fandos discusses migrant work on “The New York Times Close Up With Sam Roberts” Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7:30 p.m. [CUNY TV].


Adams proposes changes to make it easier to build

Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Amid New York City’s continuing housing crisis, Mayor Eric Adams is proposing major changes that would make it easier to build above commercial strips, near subway stations and elsewhere. He says the changes could clear the way for as many as 100,000 additional homes.

My colleague Mihir Zaveri writes that the proposed changes amount to Adams’s ambitious attempt to tackle the housing shortage in a city where rules limiting growth make it difficult to build enough homes to accommodate everyone who wants to live here. That, in turn, has helped drive up the cost of living. The mayor’s proposals reflect a growing political acceptance that the city needs to do everything it can to build.

The mayor would permit apartment buildings up to five stories tall to be built atop single-story buildings like laundromats and bodegas — a type of development prevented by zoning rules in some neighborhoods outside Manhattan. Another proposal would undo rules that prevent similar types of development around some transit stations.

Adams wants to eliminate mandates that certain new residential buildings include space for parking — a requirement that has rankled developers and made some projects impossible. The mayor also wants to make it easier for owners of one- and two- family homes to convert basements, attics or backyard garages into apartments.

Adams made a campaign promise to push more development across the city — particularly in wealthy neighborhoods like the Upper East Side of Manhattan that have resisted change but have better access to transit, jobs and schools.

City officials said the proposals were intended to be broad but not so aggressive that they would provoke a backlash: They must be approved by the City Council. Adrienne Adams, the Council speaker, said the were “encouraging and thoughtful” but stopped short of a full endorsement. She said the Council looked forward to “continuing discussions with the administration and all stakeholders.”


METROPOLITAN diary

Adorable

Dear Diary:

Very excited about the arrival of my niece’s new baby, I was searching for a baby store in Dumbo.

One had closed; another seemed to be online only. Finally, I saw an adorable little place, chock-full of little toys and outfits. I was taken immediately by a tiny plush jacket.

“Is this for a newborn?” I asked the clerk.

She hesitated.

“It depends on the breed,” she said.

— Debbie Plumer

Illustrated by Agnes Lee. Send submissions here and read more Metropolitan Diary here.


Glad we could get together here. See you Monday. — J.B.

P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword and Spelling Bee. You can find all our puzzles here.

Hannah Fidelman and Ed Shanahan contributed to New York Today. You can reach the team at [email protected].

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