St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery was completed and consecrated in 1799. It is one of those old buildings you come across all the time in the city. More prominent than most, its architecture and the skewed angle in which it sits next to Second Avenue ensures it will not ever fade into the background. In a city that boasts thousands of buildings competing for the eye’s attention, anything that busts through the mold has an instant leg up on the competition.
I had passed the old church countless times before this afternoon. I’ve always thought that it sat on one of the most beautiful blocks in the East Village. The buildings are all prim and pristine, all holding a veneer of prosperity that makes the area feel out of reach to all but the loftiest of yearly salaries. Whether that’s true or not is debatable, but the quality of dwellings on that one block place it in the same rarified air as Brooklyn Heights or the area of Yorkville around Gracie Mansion. In short, swanky. The presence of the church no doubt had some bearing on the aesthetic development of the area.
It’s an Episcopal church, and that, combined with its age, means that some weighty fellows have walked through its front doors in its long history. Indeed, Alexander Hamilton provided legal aid to the church in its early days.
The church is still active, and is an egalitarian institution these days. The character of the city has shifted to such a degree in the last 200 years that this fortunate change was also an unavoidable one. The area around the little oasis of the church has long been one of the more dynamic and volatile neighborhoods of the city. Just down the street three blocks on Second Avenue is an Emigrant Bank that once upon a time was the façade of the Fillmore East, site of some of the most legendary rock and roll concerts in history. To the west is Cooper Union, a staid institution that was the site of one of Abraham Lincoln’s most important speeches. And to the east lies Tompkins Square Park, a wonderfully situated park that has been victim to squatters and drug addicts, with only intermittent periods of respite, for decades now. All of this and more within ten minutes walk of each other.
So it is little surprise that the church has an everyman’s feeling about it today. For me, this was confirmed this afternoon. The church was hosting a neighborhood market on its grounds. I had never visited the other side of its wrought iron fence until today, but it was out of curiosity about the church itself, not the racks of over-priced vintage clothing, or the watch and cell phone accessories of the fallen-off-the-back-of-a-truck variety. No, the draw for me was an unusually mild Saturday afternoon, skies of crystalline azure, and the opportunity for a good photo or two.
I walked among the stands of goods in the churchyard, and my foot struck what I thought was a dislodged brick. I looked down and realized that the entire churchyard was a garden of crypts. Stone slabs from the brick wall of the church to the fence facing the street announced the names of long dead dignitaries entombed just below my feet, and above them all, dancing on their graves, in effect, was a flea market.
The fellow that tripped me up was a particularly high-flung individual. He was encased underneath white marble, and like all old graves, it didn’t seem long enough to cover the entire length of a full grown man. His name was Daniel D. Tompkins. According to the slab, he was born in 1774, died in 1825. He was governor of New York, and Vice President under James Monroe. A metal ring, half broken, on the slab carried the inscription “War of 1812”, the rest of the information long gone. He didn’t serve in the war, but was a state governor during it.
So there I stood, on the grave of a vice president. I’ll admit, it gave me pause. Whatever mark the man left on our nation has faded into obscurity, as is the fate of most of our leaders. Frankly, that’s a good thing. But it surely is the mark of the passage of time that I was treading on the grave of a person who was very important in his day. Such is life. Contained therein is a reminder that no matter who we are, we all end up in the same place. Well, not exactly. My grandfather worked in a steel mill all his adult life, and I doubt anyone is selling bootleg DVDs on top of his grave on brightly lit Saturday afternoons.