In New Haven there is a distinctive duality, a feeling that there exist here two very different cities, married by only by geographical proximity. It is a place of gates; it is a place of separation. On one side of the historic New Haven Green lie the gated and secured buildings of Yale’s majestic campus; on the other lies a beautiful city: a place of history, beauty and progress.
Outside the “Yale bubble” is the New Haven that played refuge to English regicides, served as the birthplace of the cotton gin and American industry, and was the home of scientific luminaries. Despite this, as students dart back and forth to classes, many fail to appreciate the city outside the bubble; they are ignorant of its history.
Even as many of us fail to see New Haven as our home rather than a place apart, our University spreads inexorably outward, driven by “progress” and competition to consume the past to pursue a brighter future. The changes it makes are often good, but, with each change, the bubble grows, and ignorance with it. As Yale transforms its surroundings, students walk busily over the storied history of our city buried under and around the Gothic façade of Yale’s campus.
Each day, thousands of students walk unknowingly past the old habitations of great men like Josiah Willard Gibbs Jr.1858 GRD 1863, an influential, Yale-educated scientist, and U.S. President William Howard Taft 1878. Every night, over a thousand freshmen sleep about 1,000 feet from the Green, most unaware that it is home to the remains of some 5,000 Puritan men and women.
On Science Hill, the bubble stretches for miles up Prospect Street. In recent years it has engulfed Grove Street Cemetery. Existing University buildings or construction projects border the cemetery on all sides. On the Canal Street border, demolition is about to commence to make room for Yale’s two new residential colleges.
Now that Yale’s campus surrounds Grove Street Cemetery, students and administrators are finally starting to take notice of their surroundings, particularly the cemetery. Sadly, what many people see is a mere nuisance, a barrier between central campus and new expansions.
Those who have walked among the graves, however, know that yet another city, another world, was lovingly crafted between the tall sandstone walls. As you walk down the cemetery’s long avenues, you can hear little of the city noises. The beautiful flowering trees, the named streets and boulevards and the towering obelisks transport visitors from the cacophonous churning of the city and student life into a place unlike any other: a surreal, quiet city of the dead.
If there is one thing to be learned from the cemetery’s markers, it is that the stone monuments are not mere markers of human remains. They are a testament to the bond of love and friendship among human beings. The Grove Street Cemetery is an enduring monument to the stories behind each and every marker, stories of love and loss that, once upon a time, were clear as crystal in the mind of another man.
Some stories may have brought tears of happiness, others of sadness. The story of Jane L. Trowbridge is one of tragic loss. She died from childbirth at the age of 37, mere hours after her infant son and a year after her twin daughters. Other markers, like that of Gibbs, who was arguably the greatest American scientist of his day, speak of a life well-lived.
As the oldest stones fade, we must not let the stories or the memory of the dead fade in the brilliant glow of progress. Grove Street Cemetery has a purpose as meaningful as any department or building at Yale. It was not built for the convenience of Yale University or her students. It exists to preserve memories of the dead and give the living a place to reflect upon the nature of their mortal lives.
The cemetery wall should stand, not out of a dislike of change but out of recognition that its contributions to the ambiance of the cemetery are fundamental to the cemetery’s purpose. The wall creates the silence and seclusion that allow visitors to reflect in peace. If the proprietors of Grove Street Cemetery determine the convenience of a few hundred temporary residents to be more meaningful than the preservation of the wall, essential to the mission of the centuries-old cemetery, they are unfit to serve.
There are few crimes greater than to alter such a meaningful testament to the human condition in a blind dash for expediency. May God forgive us if we value fleeting aesthetic appreciation over our ability to remember and learn from those who came before us. We could all do well to learn from the memories preserved on Grove Street.
John Scrudato is a junior in Morse College.