Underground and underappreciated New York



In what’s now an expensive part of Lower Manhattan, David Whitley gets much more than be bargained for.

Sometimes, the most enjoyable moments in travel are when what you’re expecting turns out to be something else. Granted, these can often be the least enjoyable moments in travel too, but when serendipity strikes in your favour, it’s really quite wonderful.

What had sounded interesting about the tour was the chance to wander through the catacombs of the Basilica of St Patrick’s Old Cathedral. I mean, who knew there were catacombs to wander around in Manhattan, right?

And, as it turns out, the catacombs are moderately interesting. They’re not the ancient, dusty, spooky things that the word “catacombs” might evoke – more subterranean corridors. Included down here are the impressively large vault of General Thomas Eckert, whose desk the Emancipation Proclamation was drawn on, and the tomb of the Delmonicos. The latter are generally regarded as bringing the a la carte restaurant to the United States, and the Delmonico steak – something New Yorkers will still ask for by name.

This absolutely falls in the “moderately interesting” category, and you’d have to be really geekily fascinated by the individuals in question to push it to any higher level than that. What ends up being unexpectedly fascinating is what comes before getting down into the catacombs.

The Basilica is in what’s now known as Nolita, one of the most expensive areas in Manhattan to buy or rent property. To say it has not always been like this is a considerable understatement. In the 1830s, this was the North End of the Five Points, an area so densely populated and crime-ridden that Charles Dickens called it more dangerous than the London slums.



The first group of immigrants to settle here were the Irish – as the name of the Basilica would suggest. Most of the names on the gravestones in the surrounding cemetery – which predates the church – are Irish. But by the middle of the 20th century, it was a predominantly Italian area. And the Italian names can be seen on little post box-style niches that became popular after the Catholic Church permitted cremation in 1863.

Perhaps more unusual are the thick, tall walls around the cemetery, and these date back to the gangs of the Five Points, which included some pretty brutal nativists who wanted the immigrants out. They burned down several Catholic churches, and St Patrick’s was constantly guarded in a bid to stop it meeting the same fate. It eventually did – but at the hands of a stove fire rather than malevolent arsonists.

Extraordinary characters are unveiled along the way. There’s a bust of ‘Dagger’ John Hughes, the first Archbishop of the New York diocese, who’d have probably risen further in the church were it not for his notorious sharp tongue.

Then there’s the tomb of John Dubois, built into the church steps. His theory was that people walked all over him in life, so they may as well in death too.

And, in the north cemetery, there’s the grave of Pierre Toussaint, who was born as a slave in Santo Domingo (now Haiti). His owners brought him to New York, where he became the most sought-after hairdresser in the city, bought his freedom, became incredibly rich and then the church’s chief financier. He’s on the second stage of the track to sainthood – the Church is just waiting for sufficient miracles to occur that are related to him.

The range of backgrounds is fascinating – and the congregation at the Basilica these days is heavily Latin American-skewed – and the whole place becomes a microcosm of the greater New York story. It’s a city where waves of people have arrived, been fought by hostile groups already there, then replaced by another wave from somewhere else. It’ll probably be like that for a few more centuries yet, irrespective of who ends up in the catacombs.

David went on the Tommy’s New York Catacombs and Candlelight Tour 

by David Whitley   





You can get the USA included as a stopover on a Globehopper round the world or a Navigator round the world