Thursday, October 25, 2012

West 11th Street Cemetery, Manhattan

This ancient Jewish cemetery occupies a seemingly disoriented triangular lot on a block of West 11th Street near the corner of 6th Avenue. In fact, this cemetery used to be a rectangle, and it is the now-triangular shape and the history behind it that makes this pleasant pocket-cemetery such a special place.

With graves dating back tothe 1790s, this cemetery predates the implementation of the vast network of carefully gridded streets that is the primary characteristic of Manhattan’s urban pattern. Originally aligned orthogonally to its surrounding neighborhood, it was severed diagonally through its center with the construction of 11th Street in the early 1830s, which also resulted in the re-alignment of all surrounding properties to adhere to the new street pattern. Graves that had existed where the new street was cleared through were relocated to the newer Jewish Cemetery on West 21st Street. The remaining portion of the cemetery was deemed sacred ground due its use as a cemetery, and was allowed to remain intact in its now-crooked and severed state.

Like Broadway, with its serpentine path that follows an ancient Native American trail, the cemetery represents a rare moment in the unrelenting gridiron plan of Manhattan in which something from the past is allowed to poke through this highly ordered urban surface. In its triangular form, the cemetery is aligned with both the vanished pattern of historic winding streets in nascent Manhattan and the gridded pattern of the modern city, serving as a uniquely physical connector between these two moments in time.

Interestingly, this house with an angled facade sits just down the block at 18 West 11th Street. Originally built in the 1840s and reconstructed in the 1970s after an explosion, the house's reconstructed facade may very well be a nod to the crooked cemetery at the other end of the street.

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