Living Next To

I lived next to a very old cemetery in Chelsea and I wasn’t spooked at all

By Kelly Kreth  |
December 3, 2019 - 12:00PM

The cemetery is officially known as the Third Cemetery of the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue because it had to move multiple times.

Jeffrey Zeldman/Flickr

Erin, a Boston transplant, accepted a new job in New York City during the early morning hours of September 11, 2001—before the day’s horrific events unfolded. At that moment, her biggest concerns were about where she was going to live. To her surprise, she ended up renting an apartment in a new building with a view of a small and very old cemetery—right in the middle of bustling Manhattan. Some might find this sort of view spooky, depressing, or at least off-putting, but Erin found many things to relish about the experience. Here’s her story.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston and had moved around quite a bit after college because I worked for a PR agency and they had me opening up new offices in different locations around the country. I had been living in Atlanta, GA for two years, and I really wanted to get back to the Northeast and closer to Boston. I had just accepted a new job that required a move to New York. I accepted the new position during the early morning of 9/11, just before the world had changed. I was excited and nervous to move to New York City, and after September 11 had a little more anxiety than usual.

In early October, I worked with a broker who helped me find a great, relatively affordable, one bedroom in Chelsea, on 21st Street, between Sixth and Seventh avenues, complete with a walk-in closet and huge windows. 

My office was just a few blocks away from my apartment, and I was eager to be able to walk to work and navigate a new city in a way I had not been able to during the past 10 years doing stints in Atlanta, Houston, and San Francisco.

[Editor's Note: Brick Underground's series “Living Next to” features first-person accounts of what it’s like to have an iconic or unusual New York City neighbor. Have a story to share? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.]

One of the first things I noticed when I looked out of my fourth-floor bedroom window was that my building was right next to a cemetery. I could see directly into the tiny graveyard between two high-rise buildings, where it turns out, early Spanish/Portuguese settlers were buried.

The juxtaposition of old and new thrilled me. I am a big believer in energy. I didn’t feel any negative energy coming from that room or from the cemetery, and on nice days I would venture outside to look around the graveyard.

I researched and found that the cemetery belonged to Shearith Israel, a Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, and the oldest Jewish congregation in North America, established in 1654.

I am not Jewish, and was raised Catholic, and I was fascinated by the history of this little patch of land. The Shearith Israel congregation was founded by 23 Jewish refugees, descendants of Spanish Jews exiled during the Inquisition who fled from Recife, Brazil, after it was taken from the Dutch by the Portuguese. [According to Untapped Cities, the cemetery had to move multiple times as NYC developed.]

Some people were horrified when they found out that I lived there, but I saw it as a comforting place. I felt these were people who came before me and set the pace and the foundation for the city as it is today. They were the souls who protected the area and who helped make it what it was today.

The cemetery for me was like a personal welcoming committee to New York. I love history and found this whole experience very cool.

History aside, there was another pleasant aspect to living here: Caretakers used to cut the grass on Saturday mornings, and I would open my window to the smell of fresh-cut grass and the sound of the lawn mower—pretty unusual for the middle of NYC.

It was nice to be able to get a glimpse (and smell) of nature in the middle of a bustling metropolitan area. I enjoyed watching the seasons come and go in relation to the small patch of land.

When it snowed, the little enclave looked like a painting, with the snow remaining pure white and untouched on the graves, while on the streets it would immediately become black slush. 

My apartment was also generally quiet because it faced such a low-traffic area. All in all I can’t think of anything negative to say about my proximity to the cemetery.

Two years later I moved because I found an apartment that was nearly half the rent and close to Central Park. I have walked by that cemetery a few times since then and it always feels like I’m greeting old friends.



Kelly Kreth

Contributing writer

Contributing writer Kelly Kreth has been a freelance journalist, essayist, and columnist for more than two decades. Her real estate articles have appeared in The Real Deal, Luxury Listings, Our Town, and amNewYork. A long-time New York City renter who loves a good deal, Kreth currently lives in a coveted rent-stabilized apartment in a luxury building on the Upper East Side.

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