Great Public Spaces: a Few Ideas, Part II

The last several posts have addressed the pressing need for quality public spaces in the rapidly developing and transforming Jersey City. In the past decade, a group of volunteers have rescued a historic nineteenth-century cemetery from abandonment and neglect. This group hopes that the cemetery can be a splendid place for the people of Jersey City.

Sandwiched between the downtown neighborhoods and the newly reignited Journal Square, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery welcomes visitors wanting to pay respects to a departed ancestor or seeking a quiet place wherein to escape the commotion of city life and find a private moment for thought and reflection. Walking along the pathways bordered by ornate obelisks and faded headstones, one easily loses himself or herself in the rustic beauty of the rolling grounds and lush vegetation. The orchestra of birds tweeting, crickets chirping, and rustling leaves drown out the grating noise of automobiles racing down Newark Avenue. The occasional train whistle evokes the image of a lonely, country landscape. Suddenly, the city is far, far away.

path
(Courtesy of Frank DeMarco and the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery).

A cursory reading of the history of the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery reveals rich layers of history. Sadly enough, this history remains largely forgotten, if known at all. In 1780, amid a minor skirmish in the Revolutionary War, Marquis de Lafayette commanded four thousand French troops on the land which now contains the cemetery. Later, the site served as an ammunition depot during the War of 1812. In 1831, the land was incorporated as the first cemetery company (that is, not owned and managed by a church or religious institution) in New Jersey, and possibly the entire country. The cemetery was a final resting place for casualties and veterans of the Civil War. Doughboys practiced military drills here during World War I.

As Jersey City’s fortunes faded in the later half of the twentieth century, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery fell into disrepair. Plots were sold multiple times over. Funds went missing. In 2008, the last trustee died, and the cemetery officially became orphaned. A group of civic-minded residents quickly organized and began volunteering their time, energy, and resources into first rescuing the cemetery from the elements and decay and then restoring it to its past beauty and glory. Much work remains.

Currently, caretakers live on the grounds and provide day-to-day upkeep and security. Volunteers help clean up the graves and landscaping on the weekends. Throughout the year, the cemetery hosts a variety of programming and events–plays, concerts, festivals, tours, and classes–to raise funds and introduce people to its treasures.

cemetery
(Courtesy of Jack Murray and the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery).

When the cemetery first opened its gates in the 1830s, Jersey City was growing  and its residents craved fresh air and nature. The cemetery met that need. Families enjoyed Sunday picnics on the grass, and couples strolled among the graves. Acting troupes performed plays for the crowds. Vagabond magicians and minstrels enthralled both children and adults. Today’s Halloween ghost tours, Shakespeare festivals, and afternoon concerts are nothing new: they are reviving the historic, traditional role of the cemetery.

The cemetery presents the city with another opportunity to preserve a unique space for its citizens and its future generations. Currently, the cemetery is managed privately by a non-profit organization. There are genuine fundraising and long-term financing challenges, and the city might be legally limited in these areas. However, since the cemetery is non-denominational, wiggle room exists. For example, the city could help with technical expertise and assistance in caring for the grounds and trees or pressuring state and federal agencies for grants.

Unlike the Embankment discussed in the previous post, the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery is open to the public. A full calendar of Halloween events appealing to people of various ages is scheduled for October. All funds will contribute to ongoing restoration and maintenance projects.

Take a refreshing walk through the Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, discover its history, and maybe you’ll find a quiet spot of your own.

Jersey City and Harsimus Cemetery, 435 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, NJ 07308

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