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Norwalk Historical Commission: GGP would dig up remains as part of building The SoNo Collection

The Pine Island Cemetery, adjacent to Crescent Street.

The Pine Island Cemetery, adjacent to Crescent Street.

NORWALK, Conn. — If you’re going to dig up graves you’d better have significant public benefit to it, Norwalk Historical Commission Chairman David Westmoreland said Wednesday.

Westmoreland said he had worked out a deal with General Growth Partners (GGP) – GGP would be allowed to dig up 11 possible graves and rebury whatever bodily remains are found, and would in turn pay for work on the Pine Island Cemetery and allow two lane traffic on Crescent Street once its mall, The SoNo Collection, is built.

“It’s clear that at some point the city or the state, they just went in with a bulldozer and they just paved,” Westmoreland said.

Norwalk Hospital buried babies in land that is now under the Route 7 connector, he said.

“We’ve always known that when the 95/7 site was developed there would be some pressure on us to deal with where Crescent Street narrows to one lane, as it goes by the Pine Island Cemetery. The other side of the street is the Metro North Danbury line which is not easily movable,” Westmoreland said, in beginning the discussion at the Commission’s meeting in the Norwalk Historical Museum.

A ground-penetrating radar study had been done previously and, with GGP expressing a desire to widen Crescent, another study was done maybe 1½ years ago, Westmoreland said. This was followed up in November with a Phase I excavation, which included stripping the fill off the top of the cemetery’s edge with a backhoe, he said. The soil was then observed to identify burial features.

Cuzzone said 13 grave shafts were found “clear as a bell.”

“I think we turned up one headstone of somebody that was never on our inventory. He has a wife somewhere down there, too,” Westmoreland said.

The report issued by Nicholas F. Bellantoni, Ph.D., emeritus state archaeologist, and Ernest Wiegand, consulting archaeologist, identifies this headstone as being “Hendry Garrison 1848-1924.”

Pine Island study

You don’t really know what you will find when you dig up the areas identified, but in one or two instances actual bones were found with the preliminary work, Westmoreland said.

A tibia was found in an upright position, meaning the grave had already been disturbed, the report states.

There were 13 burial sites found but only 11 are in the project area to the extent that they should be moved, the report states. It’s possible that there could be multiple bodies in a grave shaft as that practice was common in historic New England cemeteries, the report states.

Westmoreland said he had told GGP that the idea of moving the bodies would be entertained “only if there is significant public benefit.” The Commission has had discussions on the definition of that phrase and has suggested that Crescent Street be reopened all the way from Butler to North Water Street to “provide this connection for people in Norwalk who are very concerned, and rightly so, about traffic that is going to be happening on West Avenue,” he said.

GGP would also pay for the archaeological work, new grave markers, paving a new path for the Norwalk River Valley Trail, interpretative signage and “pretty much finish the basic renovation of cemetery,” Westmoreland said.

Common Councilman Thomas Livingston (D-District E) suggested more bodies might be found, and Westmoreland said that under state law construction must stop if that happens.

GGP Senior Developer Doug Adams explained that the proposal in front of Zoning includes a one-way Crescent Street, with traffic signals to control the tractor trailers in an arrangement similar to a one-lane bridge. While GGP sees the public benefit of two lanes it might not be safe to have people exiting onto North Water Street, he said.

It’s possible Crescent Street could be two way to the garage entrance, Westmoreland said, joking that it would give residents a secret, personal entrance to the mall.

“As far as moving this forward it is kind of weird because the city is not giving away any land,” Westmoreland said. “… At end of day there going to have to be some kind of contract … I think GGP is going to have to give the city an easement to use the public street.”

The Commission voted unanimously to hold a public hearing on the topic.

An area of the cemetery has been identified to rebury the bodies, Westmoreland said.

“We have mostly unmarked graves, all except for one, and four or five have already been messed with,” Westmoreland said. “At least we can respectfully excavate those and then rebury them in a decent manner instead of just a bulldozer that came through.”

Cuzzone said, “I think this is the most respectful project out of them all because I am sure we have buried some people, nobody ever looked when they built 95.”

The Pine Island Cemetery, adjacent to Crescent Street.

The Pine Island Cemetery, adjacent to Crescent Street.

2 comments

EveT March 24, 2016 at 6:40 am

Brings to mind the Shelley poem “Ozymandias,” or maybe even the Stephen Vincent Benet story “By the Waters of Babylon.”

JAFCO March 24, 2016 at 5:52 pm

I remember when I was in Korea, the Korean military needed some part of a hill for some reason so the local Koreans had to move a cemetary. They had a big party go on as the dug up the remains very respectfully. They then had a reburial ceremony that was very dignified (along with another party) and everyone was very happy when it was over.

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