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Discovery of burial site holds up construction work

Photo by Bill Parry
By Bill Parry

A five-story, 32-unit apartment building sits unfinished, at 90-11 Corona Ave. in Elmhurst, and nobody knows when the project will be completed.

Construction at the site was stopped by the city Department of Buildings in 2011, when human remains were discovered during the excavation.

“The DOB issued a stop-work order, which prohibits any excavation work or work that disturbs the soil at this site. The stop-work order remains in effect,” said DOB Press Secretary Kelly Magee. “In October of 2013, more remains were discovered.”

She added that the city Department of Health and the city Landmarks Preservation Commission have jurisdiction.

“We’re overseeing the archeology of the site, we make sure it’s conducted properly,” said Lisi de Bourbon, the communications director at the LPC.

De Bourbon added that it is hard to predict what will happen, saying, “It depends on what the owner wants to do.”

That has proved difficult. A meeting between Buildings, Landmarks and the owner, Bo Jing Zhu, was scheduled for last week until Zhu requested a rescheduling.

Meanwhile, the leaders of Saint Mark’s AME Church in Jackson Heights are fighting to preserve the gravesite. Saint Mark’s was originally founded at the burial ground in 1828. The church’s pastor, Kimberly Detherage, says it is one of the first places freed slaves started their own church.

Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka says it is an honorable endeavor. In the 1990s, Tshaka led the fight to preserve the Olde Towne of Flushing burial ground, where blacks and native Americans were interred in the 1800s.

“They were going to dig it up for a playground and I got it back,” he said.

Tshaka researched the city archives and then approached city officials until former City Councilman John Liu and then-Borough President Helen Marshall allocated a combined $2.66 million in funding in 2004.

Tshaka supports Detherage’s efforts, saying, “Once you find remains, it’s hallowed ground and it doesn’t matter who is buried there. The city should intercede, buy the land and preserve it.”

Thomas McKenzie, president of the Newtown Civic Association, said, “Elmhurst is the oldest permanent settlement in Queens County and we have to preserve this bit of history. All great societies are remembered by the way it took care of its dead. I will fight for preservation as will the Newtown Civic Association. We just want to see these people remembered.”

Reach reporter Bill Parry by e-mail at bparry@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4538.

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