BY GABE HERMAN | Plans are moving forward for the reinterment of bone fragments that were found in Washington Square Park during recent construction projects.
For 30 years during the late 1700s and early 1800s, two-thirds of what is now Washington Square Park was a potter’s field, according to the Parks Department. It’s believed that during that period, about 20,000 people were buried there.
During three phases of park reconstruction, between 2008 and 2017, human remains were found. While intact burials were left alone, according to protocols of the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, several hundred bone fragments were removed, with plans to reinter them in the park at a later time.
At the June meeting of the Community Board 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee, Sybil Young, the historic preservation officer at the Department of Parks and Recreation, presented the department’s reinterment plans. Basically, the remains would be buried together in one box, in an existing planting bed near the park entrance at Sullivan St. and Washington Square South.
The box would be buried 5 feet down, in accordance with New York City Board of Health rules. The site would be marked with an engraved granite paver next to the planting bed.
The C.B. 2 committee gave input about what the marker should say. The proposed text now reads: “From 1797 until 1825, what is now Washington Square Park was the City’s Potter’s Field, where thousands of people including the unidentified, the indigent and those who died of yellow fever were buried. In addition, several church burial grounds were located in the northeast portion of the park. Fragmentary remains of some of the early New Yorkers buried in this Potter’s Field were found by archaeologists during construction in and adjacent to Washington Square Park between 2008 and 2017. The City reinterred the remains on this site in 2019.”
Andrew Berman, executive director of Village Preservation, said his group has not been involved in the reinterment plans.
“There are literally thousands of people buried under Washington Square,” he noted, “as there are under a surprising number of parks, playgrounds, and even schools and residences in our neighborhood.
“Though these individuals may have been forgotten over time, and were in some cases forsaken at the time of their burial, we should treat their remains with respect and care,” he added. “Occasions like this remind us of the layers of history — literal and figurative — that can be found in a neighborhood like this. It’s important to remember that rich history and honor it, and make sure it is not erased from our collective memories.”
Parks spokesperson Crystal Howard said the reinterment would happen this summer. She said that, appropriately, the box to be buried is expected to be coffin-size, to hold the several hundred bone fragments.
At last month’s C.B. 2 Parks and Waterfront Committee meeting, members unanimously passed a resolution supporting the reinterment plan. The resolution noted that the community board “looks forward to consideration of additional narrative markers which might elaborate on the rich history of the park.”