Jamie Noerpel, who lived in a hilltop apartment in North York, used to walk regularly to nearby Prospect Hill Cemetery a few years ago.
These were far from grim walks to the cemetery in the evening, after another rough day as a high school history teacher.
On the contrary, these walks brought rejuvenation.
She explained in a story, posted on her Wandering in York County blog, that it helped her appreciate just being alive.
She had just completed her thesis in American Studies at Penn State Harrisburg. These studies gave him a particular insight into the iconography of this cemetery-garden, created before the Civil War, partly as a place of refuge and pleasure. That’s exactly what Prospect Hill offered Noerpel more than 15 decades later.
One evening, she took a different route, which took her to a green field near Prospect Hill Cemetery, a space she observed every day just outside her apartment window.
There she was surprised to find a solitary headstone, commemorating a youngster, Clashay Johnson, inscribed “all who rest in these hallowed grounds”.
She had unknowingly discovered the City Cemetery, the field of potters or poor people in York Region, where for generations those without means, family or who could not be identified had been buried.
This discovery engaged the heart and mind of this tireless researcher.
She found descriptions in the few cemetery records for those buried there, words like “invalid”, “poor”, “single mother” or “alcoholism”.
Lives reduced to demeaning words.
“My heart sank,” she wrote.
Plan to be unveiled
A few months later, she presented City Cemetery at an annual conference of the Association for Gravestone Studies.
York Mayor Michael Helfrich, in the audience, spoke to her after the presentation and commented: ‘There should be a monument there.’
Noerpel, a 31-year-old York College graduate, took that as a call to action.
“And with those six words,” she wrote, “I was unleashed.”
Noerpel will soon be organizing Project Penny Heaven, an initiative to raise $20,000 for a monument, ongoing maintenance of the cemetery, and other improvements to rightly commemorate this place. The city cemetery has been known as Penny Heaven for years.
She has formed an all-volunteer committee, which includes members of the Friends of Lebanon cemetery. This group is restoring the historic Black Lebanon Cemetery, another burial site just north on this hill in North York.
She hired Preservation Pennsylvania to serve as the depository for the donations.
And she will outline the details of the initiative at a public event at 5 p.m. on September 15 at the cemetery on Schley Alley.
Informal urbanism at stake
Noerpel’s work is an example of a type of community problem-solving called “informal town planning” or “do-it-yourself town planning”.
The practice of addressing issues outside of a regular government process is not new, but it appears to be increasing in York Region and elsewhere as cities are unable to address urban issues due to shrinking Resource.
Do-it-yourself town planning can be as simple as placing a sign in a window to protest an injustice.
Or it may mean placing flowers and then interpretive plaques at a little-known Farquhar Park memorial to Lillie Belle Allen and Henry C. Schaad, killed in the 1969 race riots, as Bob Mann did.
It could be hard physical work, like Annalisa Gojmerac is doing planting community gardens on vacant land around York.
Another example is the work of the Friends of Lebanon Cemetery, which began as a simple clean-up of a neglected cemetery and has now evolved into a community initiative.
These personal urban renewal efforts often have one thing in common: An individual who believes deeply in the task at hand and whose passion draws others to initiative.
This applies to Noerpel’s leadership in the Penny Heaven project.
Those who have worked with Noerpel on projects, as I have on several volunteer initiatives, know that this Yoe native and Dallastown graduate accomplishes what she sets out to do.
His projects are not only informative but designed to be formative. Further away. she does not approach her work as performative, intended more to impress than to change things. Her projects are formative, undertaken with authenticity and intentionality and designed to enhance understanding and meaning.
Questions and answers about the city cemetery
With all of that on his planning list, Noerpel took a moment to answer these questions about the Penny Heaven project:
Q. What attracted you to this project?
A. Regardless of status or wealth, we will all find ourselves underground one day. Even though death is the great equalizer, we see a class divide in Penny Heaven. In fact, that’s the problem, you can’t see anything except a grassy field and a single stone in the southeast corner.
After moving into the apartments in Schley Alley, I discovered that the field outside my bedroom window was actually a cemetery. Unlike the Prospect Hill Cemetery next door, those buried at the City Cemetery could not afford a proper burial (or were not identified).
People like Margaret Williams, a 5 month old baby girl who died in 1906. Or Martha Beckman, a 56 year old woman who spent her last days during the Great Depression in the county house. Or Clashay Johnson, a 15-month-old boy who died in 1987.
In 1897, newspapers reported that hundreds of people had been exhumed from the original potter’s field. A new school was to open and the 619 bodies would have posed a dangerous health threat with fears associated with diphtheria, smallpox and yellow fever.
More often than not, souls destined for burial in North York’s Penny Heaven were buried haphazardly, sometimes not even deep enough to meet code. Ground-penetrating radar shows us that the more than 600 people displaced in 1897 were simply crammed into a “double row of graves”. We can’t turn back time and give them a proper burial, but we can give them a proper memorial today.
Q. Your fundraising goal is $20,000. How will these funds be used?
A. Money raised will go to a memorial, giving lasting public recognition to those buried at Penny Heaven. Silbaugh Memorials of Shrewsbury is giving us a big discount on granite stone. We also found local sign companies to make a bronze plaque describing the history of the cemetery, as well as a laminated sign showing the index of the graves. We have a maintenance fund of $5,000 to mow and wash the monument and a few hundred dollars for landscaping.
Based on records kept from the 1900s and Find a Grave, we can identify the racial makeup of those whose final resting place is at Penny Heaven: 124 white, 91 black, 49 unidentified, two are described as “Spanish ” and a half-breed. . The identity of the hundreds displaced in 1897 is unknown.
It was a time of segregation, so a cemetery with blacks buried next to whites would have been unheard of. Why is this important? Penny Heaven is a symbol of the possibility of unity, if only in death. We hope that the monument will change the atmosphere of the city cemetery from a marginalized place of the destitute to a permanent place of memory.
Q. How did you organize this initiative?
A. The initiative is driven by civic-minded York counties. People who see an injustice – those with less means have been cast to the margins with little or no documentation – and want to right that wrong.
Friends of York City Cemetery includes residents such as Samantha Dorm and Tina Charles of Friends of Lebanon Cemetery, Dr. Joy Giguere of Penn State York and the Pennsylvania Chapter of the Association of Gravestone Studies, and Jack Sommer, who is president of Historic Prospect Hill Cemetery Heritage Foundation.
Like the Farquhar Park Memorial, or William C. Goodridge’s new East Philadelphia Street sculpture, or the Lebanon Cemetery cleanups, we hope this community campaign will build public knowledge about York County’s historic class and racial divisions in funeral practices – and in life.
Q. Why is this project important to York County and its residents?
A. Cemeteries are often considered sacred spaces — a protected place of pilgrimage for grieving family and friends. The rural cemetery movement of the 19th century transformed the gloomy and unsanitary outlook of cemeteries into beautiful green spaces that people really wanted to visit.
An example of a beautiful cemetery is Prospect Hill, where I often admire the epitaphs and elaborate headstone iconography. The city cemetery, on the other hand, has only one stone that easily goes unnoticed.
At the town cemetery, I watched the owners scoop up their dog’s feces as they walked over human remains, but just a few feet away. Without a prominent monument marking the cemetery, how could they have known that they had passed through hundreds of unmarked graves?
This cemetery was meant to serve the whole community, especially the less privileged, and it is fitting that we honor their lives with a fitting memorial.
Jim McClure is a retired editor of the York Daily Record and is the author or co-author of nine books on York County history. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.