Volume 77 / Number 35 Jan. 30 - Feb. 05, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Dem bones, dem bones Parks is gonna build around

By Lincoln Anderson

Test pits probing for the presence of human remains in Washington Square Park turned up a bumper crop of bones last week. But a spokesperson for the city’s Landmarks Preservation Commission said it was always known that the renovation project would uncover remains in the park, which is part of the Greenwich Village Historic District.

“They’re not surprised at all. We always expected it,” said Lisi de Bourbon.

Before Washington Square Park was created in the 1850s, it was a potter’s field from 1797 to 1825, then a parade ground until 1850.

According to the Parks Department, as of last Friday, human remains, in varying conditions, had been found at a number of different test trenches.

On Mon., Jan. 21, human and animal remains were found in a test trench on the south side of the park where new utility lines are to be laid.

“The bones were mixed in with nails and other construction debris, which indicates that they have been dug up in previous excavations and used to fill construction sites,” a Parks statement said.

A forensic archaeologist will analyze the remains off site to determine their attributes. Once the testing is complete, the city will re-inter the remains in an appropriate way, the statement said. 

On Wed., Jan. 23, during investigations in Test Trench 3, additional remains were found, including one intact burial and multiple bones, possibly belonging to two individuals, at a depth of about 5 feet to 6 feet belowground. Also that morning, in Test Trench 4, four intact burials were found at a depth of 6 feet to 7 feet, and were left undisturbed, according to Parks.

“A team of archaeologists hired by the Parks Department will not fully excavate, so as not to disturb the remains,” Parks’ statement said. “The site will be marked by G.P.S. coordinates and put on Parks maps and backfilled to ensure no damage occurs now or in the future.”

On Thurs., Jan. 24, there was ongoing work at Test Trench 3 on the one intact burial uncovered the previous day.

According to Parks’ statement, “The remains were carefully uncovered, photo-documented and measured drawings were prepared by the forensic anthropologist. The area at Test Trench 4 was cleaned enough to determine the number of burials that were left undisturbed.”

On Fri., Jan. 25, digging in Test Trench 14 yielded an intact burial of a female at 11 feet deep. A Parks engineer will redesign plans that will not require digging deeper than 7 feet to 8 feet at this site, according to the department.

As of last week, Parks said, 15 areas had been tested according to protocol, and testing and monitoring would continue. L.P.C., which is the city’s expert archeology agency, has been in consultation and will review the findings, according to Parks.

“It is not surprising to find remains at Washington Square Park, which is why Parks and the Landmarks Preservation Commission work together on projects that may include sensitive materials,” the Parks statement continued. “Many city parks contain both formal cemeteries and burial grounds, as well as informal ‘potter’s fields.’ Washington Square Park has been significantly excavated and rebuilt at least three times since it was first constructed in the 1850s on top of the site of a potter’s field and a parade ground. In earlier excavations…human remains were likely disposed of or mixed back in with construction fill.”

L.P.C.’s de Bourbon said that on Dec. 18, 2006, a binding commission report — an L.P.C. permit issued to public agencies doing work on landmarks — was issued to Parks for the renovation. A condition set by L.P.C. for its approval of Parks’ plans to move the fountain and reconstruct the park was for the department to conduct an archaeological documentary study, to be reviewed by L.P.C., and, if any intact burials were found, for Parks to complete any needed archaeology, plus redesign its plans to circumvent these sites, so as not to disturb them.

“We’re now checking in on the archaeological testing to ensure that the work preserves the historic integrity of the burials,” de Bourbon said. “This means that we are making sure that the burials are kept in place. Also, L.P.C. must approve the redesign. We will also weigh in on whatever archaeological analysis may be needed and will review the final archaeological report.”

Jonathan Greenberg, an opponent of the park renovation, charged that at a community board meeting, George Vellonakis, the renovation’s designer, had claimed that no digging would be done below 3 feet.

Cristina DeLuca, a Parks spokesperson, said, “We are making every effort to reuse existing utility lines, especially catch basins. Most of our digging will be in the 2-to-3-foot range. In the rare instance that we must go to the 3-to-4-foot level, it is to replace certain catch basins or utility lines.”

Greenberg said he and fellow renovation opponents were looking forward to an event at Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square South on Wed., Feb. 6, at 7 p.m. dubbed “A Memorial Service for What Was and Could Have Been at Washington Square Park: A Speak-Out, a Lament, Some Music, Some Conversation About Next Steps.” The event will be on Ash Wednesday, which Judson’s senior minister, Reverend Donna Schaper, noted, is “an appropriate day to grieve.” The memorial service will conclude with a march around the park.

Sharon Woolums, another opponent, said she had read the environmental impact assessment for the project, which contained information about the park’s various burial sites.

“There’s an African-American plot, 50 feet by 50 feet,” she said. “There’s a plot from the Jewish synagogue from the 1800s. I knew about it all along.”

Woolums and Doris Diether, a Community Board 2 member, also expressed concern that they had seen a backhoe digging very roughly around the roots of the famous Hangman’s Tree in the park’s northwest corner.

“I think they’re trying to kill it!” Diether exclaimed.

Parks’ DeLuca said, “There is a backhoe working at that section of the park, but it is not removing any foundations near the tree. We are trying to be as careful as possible to not cause any harm to the tree and Manhattan Forestry is on site to monitor activity.”

Shaan Khan, Borough President Scott Stringer’s director of community affairs and constituent services, said that on Friday he was informed that sewer lines beneath the park are at a depth of 14 feet to 20 feet and so would not be affected by the work. Khan said that when the bones were initially found last week, the understanding had been that the Department of Buildings had issued a stop-work order for the construction. But he said this was not the case and that Parks itself is the agency responsible for issuing any stop-work orders for the project.

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