By Gina Martinez
A historical African-American and Native American burial ground in Flushing was recently cleaned up after complaints of overgrown weeds and grass.
City Councilman Peter Koo (D-Flushing) hosted a cleanup of Olde Towne Burial Ground on 165th Street in Flushing Saturday. He was joined by volunteers from Green Earth Urban Gardens, as they performed general maintenance, including weeding, mulching and planting. Koo funded the cleanup through the Parks Equity Initiative.
The grounds served as a burial site for more than 1,000 African-Americans and Native Americans in the 1800s. In the 1930s, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses redeveloped the site into a playground. Mandingo Tshaka, a Bayside activist and founder of the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy, began fighting for official recognition for the area.
Tshaka and former Councilman John Lui (D-Flushing) fought to preserve the site, and in 2004, the late Borough President Helen Marshall and Lui allocated $2.667 million in funding for improvements that included a recreated historic wall engraved with the names from the only four headstones remaining there from 1919. New trees and shrubs were planted along with a newly installed toddler’s playground. In 2006, the site was reclaimed and reopened by NYC Parks and the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy.
But since then maintenance of the site has not been up to par, especially compared to nearby cemeteries, according to Tshaka. He believes race plays a part as to why the grounds are not maintained.
“What disturbs me is just around the corner is Kissena Park and that’s always manicured,” he said. “This burial ground is a block wide and a block in length, it’s small compared to Flushing Cemetery, which is always well-manicured, Why is this one neglected?”
According to Tshaka, pedestrians use the burial grounds as a shortcut through 165th street, something he said would never happen at Flushing Cemetery. Before the June 3 cleanup, he said the grass had grown as tall as three feet.
Koo said he hosted the annual cleanups because the site is ignored by the city Parks Department.
“Maintenance of the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground is routinely overlooked by the Parks Department, year after year,” he said. “I fund and participate in cleanups on an annual basis, but the grounds deserve regular upkeep by the city. Waiting until the weeds and overgrowth are out of control effectively outrages the community who care about respecting these grounds. Our parks, public spaces, and especially this long-neglected burial ground, deserve better.”
A Parks Department spokeswoman said the burial ground is regularly maintained by a “mobile crew, and tended by horticultural and mowing crews as well as volunteers.”
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart