Back in the early 19th century, New York City was completely lacking in vast, open green spaces (Central Park wasn’t established until 1853). So when Green-Wood Cemetery, which stretches out to 478 acres, opened up in 1838, it was a pretty big deal. New Yorkers flocked there for family picnics and leisurely strolls – completely unconcerned about being surrounded by thousands of dead bodies.
And by the end of the century, the cemetery was one of the top tourist attractions in the entire country, bringing in half a million visitors each year – second only to Niagara Falls. Green-Wood Cemetery is widely regarded as New York’s first public park. And considering how the Met didn’t even open until 1872, it also functioned as the city’s first art museum – a place where people could come to come to admire exquisite sculptures and ornate mausoleums.
And as its fame grew among the living, it came to be seen as the place for New York City’s elite to obtain permanent residency. Among the 600,000 people interred at Green-Wood, notable figures include composer Leanord Bernstein, artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph.
In the days before air conditioning, Green-Wood Cemetery was one of the only respites from New York’s hot and sticky summers. Yet it was a cold and gloomy day during my visit. But what better conditions for touring a graveyard, I figured. And while Green-Wood still manages to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, I found myself mostly alone in this vast necropolis.
Arriving at Green-Wood Cemetery
Getting off the R train in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, I walked to Green-Wood’s main entrance – easily recognizable for its elaborate Gothic-style front gate. Known as the Fort Hamilton Gate, the brownstone structure was designed by Richard M. Upjohn in 1876.
Stepping inside, I encountered a marble sculpture of two young siblings embracing each other in death. Its creator, Thomas Crawford, is also the man behind the statue which tops the American capitol building in Washington DC. And he himself is interred at Green-Wood among thousands of other notable artists and visionaries.
Taking a map from the visitor center, I set off to explore the cemetery on foot.
I soon arrived at one of Green-Wood’s most iconic structures: the chapel. The limestone chapel, completed in 1913, was constructed by the Warren and Wetmore architectural firm in the Gothic style. But as it was undergoing renovations, and I decided to distance myself from the construction noise by heading uphill.
It was an especially blustery day, and the strong winds nearly managed to split my map in two. I set it aside for a moment and freely explored some random footpaths before returning to the main road. And before long, I stumbled upon one of Green-Wood Cemetery’s most iconic tombs.
Musician Albert Ross Parsons and his wife are interred at this miniature replica of the Great Pyramid of Khufu. In addition to a replica of the Sphinx, Jesus and Mary (with baby Jesus) stand guard in front of the mausoleum’s doors.
While Parsons was a pianist, organist and professional composer in his day, he was also an independent Egyptologist who even wrote a book on the Great Pyramid. Written in 1893, New Light From The Great Pyramid details its mysteries, its relation to the Zodiac and even its significance to Christianity. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of Green-Wood’s most alluring tombs also happens to house one of its most interesting residents!
Arriving near the top of Battle Hill, the highest natural point in Brooklyn (220 ft above sea level), I was rewarded with a clear view of Manhattan’s skyline. Eerily, from this perspective, the distant steel skyscrapers seemed to form a warped mirror image of Green-Wood’s tombstones and obelisks.
But had one stood here back in August 1776, they would’ve seen neither tombstone nor high-rises. Instead, on the morning of August 27th, in particular, the observer would’ve witnessed the advancement of the British army prior to the very first battle of the Revolutionary War.
Learning of the impending attack on Brooklyn, George Washington sent his forces to take the hill, but the British managed to arrive first. Though the Americans later managed to take it for themselves, they would ultimately end up surrounded and outnumbered.
Occurring just weeks after the Declaration of Independence, the Battle of Brooklyn also turned out to be the seven-year war’s largest. Though the British emerged victorious, we all know how the war would eventually play out.
Today, American generals who led their troops to battle are honored with a tall monument at the end of the ‘Battle Path’ trail. But these statues are largely overlooked in favor of a bronze statue of Minerva just nearby.
Minerva’s statue was also erected in honor of the Battle of Brooklyn, though not until the year 1920. Interestingly, Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom, was placed as so to face the Statue of Liberty, to whom she seems to be waving. And spookily, by squinting off into the distance, one can see Lady Liberty waving right back!
Though the Statue of Liberty was dedicated decades earlier in 1886, some believe that she was deliberately placed to face Battle Hill all along. Whatever the case may be, over the past 100 years, developers have made sure to avoid building any new high-rises that could potentially obstruct the view and interfere with the friendship.
Not far from the statue of Minerva is the grave of one of Green-Wood Cemetery’s most well-known residents, Leanord Bernstein (1918 – 1990). The influential American composer was arguably one of the most famous musicians of the 20th century.
Bernstein was behind dozens of classical compositions and film scores. And the soundtrack to the 1961 film West Side Story is among his most well-known works. With all that considered, his grave is surprisingly simple and modest when compared with the other elaborate tombs around the park.
Beyond Battle Hill
In the area, baseball fans won’t want to miss the graves of Brooklyn Dodgers team owner Charles Ebbets and another early pioneer of the sport, Henry Chadwick. But coming down from the hill, I opted for some aimless wandering instead. I headed south, where I ended up encountering one of New York City’s most controversial statues.
‘Civic Virtue’ has caused numerous stirs since its 1922 inception. Though meant to symbolize good governance and the banning of prostitution, the main figure is shown standing over two women. Originally placed in front of New York City Hall as part of a large fountain, it was eventually moved to Queens Borough Hall in 1941. But feminists continued complaining about the statue for decades, and it was finally moved to Green-Wood (minus the fountain) in 2012.
Also nearby, I came across the grave of William Holbrook Beard (1824 – 1900). Beard was a painter known for portraits and animal paintings which often depicted the animals wearing human clothing and behaving like people.
The bear on his grave represents his most famous painting of bulls and bears fighting on Wall Street. And bears also made regular appearances in many of his other works. But the sculpture was only added in 2002. Designed by sculptor Dan Ostermiller, it was added after it was decided that Beard was too significant a figure for such a barebones tomb.
I continued heading in a southwest direction, and I was surprised to come across so many grand mausoleums that were not even highlighted on the official map. Supposedly, Green-Wood now contains a staggering 600,000 graves, which makes the omissions understandable. Nevertheless, it seems as if the grandeur of a person’s tomb has little to do with their historical significance.
I soon came across the entrance to the Catacombs, which were unsurprisingly locked. In total, the Catacombs consist of 30 vaults, each owned by a different local family.
Originally a spot for gravel mining, the resulting pits later proved to be convenient spaces for additional graves. They were then converted into tombs in the 1850’s, making for midrange burial options for families who couldn’t afford a free-standing mausoleum. Supposedly, they’re open to the public just one day a year sometime in October.
I then made my way over to the grave of influential painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. The New York artist, known for his colorful neo-expressionist paintings, rose to fame in the 1970’s. He collaborated with the likes of Andy Warhol and rubbed shoulders with many prominent figures of New York’s ’80’s hip hop scene. Sadly, he died young at the age of 27 of a heroin overdose.
His grave is surprisingly modest – especially considering that one of his paintings recently sold for as much as $110.5 million! The grave is also fairly tricky to find. While it does appear on Google Maps, it’s well off the main path, and you have to walk over a grassy area for a few minutes before you find it. While the tombstone is rather non-distinct, you should spot it thanks to the regular offerings left by the artist’s many admirers.
Heading back northwest, I came across the grave of Samuel Morse (1791 – 1872) perched up on a hill. Though he had success as a professional artist, he’s much better known as the man who invented the telegraph, along with, of course, Morse code.
Following his invention, Morse persisted for six years at convincing Congress to set up a long-distance telegraph line. It was eventually installed in 1843, linking Washington DC with Baltimore. Before long, people realized what a game-changer the technology really was. And long-distance telegraph cables were being installed throughout the world by the end of the century.
Heading over to one of Green-Wood Cemetery’s numerous ponds, known as Crescent Water, I encountered the somewhat infamous Niblo Mausoleum. Irish-born William Niblo (1790 – 1878) was a successful entrepreneur who ran numerous theaters in addition to Niblo’s Garden, New York’s top entertainment venue at the time. The large mausoleum was erected in 1852 to inter his wife and other family members.
But Niblo continued living for a few decades after his wife’s death, and came to hang out at the tomb regularly. He even hosted legendary parties at the spot, complete with live music and entertainment! But during one of his numerous solo visits, he accidentally got locked inside for an entire night. Luckily, his worried friends had a hunch as to where he might be.
It was getting dark out and I’d nearly completed my loop around the cemetery. From atop a hill, I took some time to admire yet another one of Green-Wood’s scenic vantage points which overlooked a different pond. In 1838, the man behind this beautiful landscaping was Green-Wood Cemetery’s first superintendent, Almerin Hotchkiss.
And after around eleven years working on the design and gradual expansion of Green-Wood Cemetery, he’d go on to design yet another iconic graveyard: St. Louis’s Bellefontaine. We largely have Hotchkiss to thank then, for the creation of some of the very first ‘parks’ in the United States – not to mention public art museums.
Green-Wood Cemetery is well worthy of multiple visits. It’s should come as no surprise then, why so many choose to move there permanently.
Green-Wood Cemetery, in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Sunset Park, is situated nearby several different subway stations. But the main entrance is closest to 25th Street Station on the R Line.
Note that there a couple of other entrances, but they’re only open on the weekends and some holidays. Though this disclaimer is printed on the map, it’s written in incredibly tiny font. I made the mistake of trying out a different gate on my way out of the park, and then had to walk all the way back to the main one.
But if you’re visiting over the weekend, Green-Wood Cemetery will also be accessible via the F and G lines.
Entrance to the cemetery is free for all visitors.
Choosing where to stay in a city as vast (and expensive) as NYC is not easy. And the most desirable neighborhoods are often going to be off-limits for travelers on a budget. Ultimately, you should go with the most convenient area that you can afford.
But what exactly is ‘convenient’ in New York City? It’s going to mean something a little different for everyone, depending on what your interests are and which neighborhoods you plan to explore.
Many of the more well-known tourist attractions (such as Central Park, the Empire State Building, Chinatown and the MET, among many others) are scattered throughout Manhattan. If you can afford to stay somewhere in Manhattan, then you can’t really go wrong (except for the far north or East Harlem). The island is incredibly well-connected by subway and it’s overall quite walkable. And the downtown portion of the island is linked with Brooklyn at various points.
For those staying in Brooklyn, most of the borough’s trendy neighborhoods are situated at its western end, like Park Slope, Brooklyn Heights and Williamsburg. These would all make good bases for your journeys throughout the rest of the city, as they’re all short rides away from Manhattan. Fort Greene is another area worth considering, while Bushwick has been undergoing a major resurgence as of late.
Farther north, Astoria in Queens is another neighborhood to consider. But it will take you longer to get to lower Manhattan and Brooklyn from there.
The safety situation in New York is a little bit strange. Most of Manhattan is quite safe, and so is the western portion of Brooklyn. But even as you head further eastward, it’s hard to categorize the different neighborhoods as either entirely safe or dangerous (unless it’s somewhere like Brownsville or East New York, which you should avoid entirely).
The safety situation can sometimes change from block to block. Therefore, if you’re staying in one of the more off-the-beaten-path districts of NYC, it’s best to consult with a local about which sections or streets of the neighborhood to avoid.
Note that your AirBnb host may downplay the potential safety concerns, so be sure to do some research online if you don’t know any other locals. With that said, NYC overall is among the safest major cities in America.
New York City is probably the only city in the entire USA where most residents can live comfortably without a car. And that’s good news for temporary visitors who are used to navigating cities independently via public transportation.
You can get just about anywhere with the subway which is run by the MTA. An individual ride costs $2.75 regardless of distance. You’ll need to buy a Metrocard from the machines located at each station, which accept card or cash. While you can pay per ride, it’s best to fill it up with $10 or $20 at a time so that you don’t always need to think about it.
Note that the L train, a convenient line which runs through Manhattan and Brooklyn, is not currently running on weekends. And numerous other lines change their course or stop running completely due to scheduled repairs (or oftentimes, seemingly at random).
There are numerous apps for navigating New York’s complex and ever-changing subway system. But when it comes to getting straightforward, real-time updates regarding delays or schedule changes, I find the best app to be the most obvious one: Google Maps.
Manhattan is highly walkable, while walking from one district to another within Brooklyn is a pain. Just like in the movies, New York is full of taxis and you shouldn’t have difficulty finding one to hail down from the street. Nowadays, though, many people just hire an Uber or Lyft.