By Joe Anuta
The thought of developers digging a foundation on the site of the Brinckerhoff Cemetery in Fresh Meadows is something most speakers at last week’s public hearing found horrifying, but it has happened in New York City before.
The city Landmarks Preservation Commission held its public hearing in Manhattan May 15 as part of the process of deciding whether to landmark the Brinckerhoff Cemetery in Fresh Meadows, which would prevent development on the overgrown plot of land near 72nd Avenue and 182nd Street.
For about an hour and a half, elected officials and their representatives spoke about the historical value of the family cemetery that was first used in the 18th century but subsequently ended up in the hands of the current owners, who now want to build.
A 1919 survey found that 77 headstones stood on the property, but Lynn Rogers, of the Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries in Staten Island told the commission she believes up to 500 bodies could be buried in the plot, since the practice of placing one body under a headstone was not always standard and many more unmarked graves could exist.
In a subsequent interview with TimesLedger Newspapers, Rogers discussed an abandoned cemetery in Staten Island that she said was sold as a tax lien by the city and eventually turned into a strip mall, which could serve as a cautionary tale for the preservationists hoping Brinckerhoff will be spared.
The Brinckerhoff family was one of the first clans to settle Queens, but their plot was sold to the DeDomenico family in the 1950s. The commission put it on their calendar of places to consider for landmarking in 2000, which prevented it from development.
It is not clear when the commission will vote on the cemetery, but its recommendation will be passed on to the City Planning Commission and eventually the City Council, which can either agree or reverse the commission’s decision.
“We had a situation like this on Staten Island, and it was obliterated for the very reason that Brinckerhoff is going to be obliterated,” she warned.
In 1917, maps of Staten Island recorded a cemetery for African slaves located in the Port Richmond neighborhood of the borough, according to both a 1993 report by the Staten Island Advance and Rogers, who said the cemetery was called the Second Asbury African Methodist Episcopal Church and Cemetery.
A house of worship was erected, and 10 years later the land was designated a church cemetery. It remained so until a tax lien was placed on the property in the 1950s and when the church could not pay the lien, it was sold to a private entity, according to Rogers.
The land eventually ended up in the hands of developers, who paved over the graveyard and erected a strip mall and bank, she said.
The Staten Island property is currently owned by Sam Angiuli, according to city records.
But Rogers said the contractor dug up the site and there was no way of knowing how many human remains were found — a fate she does not want to see repeated at Brinckerhoff.
“I think for the contractor to go in and obliterate the cemetery and dispose of the remains in a New Jersey landfill is unconscionable, personally,” she said.
The owner of the Brinckerhoff lot did not speak at the hearing, but a man named Fang Zou, who said he spoke on the owners’ behalf, made their intentions clear.
“I believe we deserve the right as a property owner to develop on the site,” he said, citing the fact that the owners are paying taxes on the lot.
But Zou also said the bodies have likely disintegrated since they were not kept in caskets, an assumption that a direct descendent of the Brinckerhoff family addressed earlier in the hearing.
“I was actually a little bit dumbfound when in the introduction this morning it was stated it was unknown if any remains still existed there,” he said. “My question is, where do you think the remains have gone?”
Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4566.