By Gina Martinez
A Flushing resident used last week’s visit from Mayor Bill de Blasio at a town hall meeting as an opportunity to ask for help with a black cemetery.
Beverly Riley called on the mayor to restore Old Towne Burial Ground at 45th Avenue and 165th Street after years of periodic neglect. She requested his help to speed up the restoration process so that pedestrians stop confusing the cemetery inside the public park as a place where they can walk their dogs.
The ground 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, has been fighting for official recognition for the cemetery for over 10 years. Tshaka and former Councilman John Lui (D-Flushing) worked to preserve the site, and in 2004, the late Borough President Helen Marshall and Lui allocated $2.667 million in funding for improvements, which 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 the city Parks Department and the Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy.
Riley told the mayor that residents have been trying for the last 10 years to get the cemetery restored so that it could have the respect and dignity it deserves in the community. But she said they have not been able to use $100,000 in funds that was allocated to them by Marshall.
“To date we have not been able to get the Parks Department to work with us to put in the proper memorial that would allow the people in the neighborhood to recognize the site as a cemetery,” she said. “We have been trying now to make it into an area where people recognize what it is — sacred ground not a place to walk your dog or allow it to be overgrown.”
The cemetery shares space with a children’s playground.
Queens Parks Commissioner Dotty Lewandowski stepped in and said that Parks has been trying to work with the conservancy to do more for the site as well as with Borough President Melinda Katz. She said there would be a meeting in early December to advance talks about design and seek additional funding.
The mayor was insistent about getting answersand asked: “What is it going to take to make sure the area is properly recognized and respected?”
Lewandowski said the ground currently has a marker and signage indicating it is a cemetery but acknowledged more could be done.
According to Riley, all the cemetery has is a poorly placed sign on the gate that indicates it is a burial ground, but right next to it are signs that tell the public how they are to behave in a public park. She said it sends the wrong message. Riley said the conservancy simply wanted the Parks Department to allow the $100,000 to be used to install the proper memorial, such as headstones, so that people in the neighborhood can recognize it and stop walking their dogs through the grounds.
De Blasio agreed with Riley and said it was simple, asking Lewandowski, “What’s the problem?”
Lewandowski said Parks needs more funding, saying it could cost up to a million dollars.
De Blasio told Riley he would try to make sure there was enough money in the city’s budget to get it done.
“I want to achieve your goal,” he said. “A million dollars is serious, but I’m interested in resolving the issue so I would like to draw up a plan. I want to know how much money it will take to make this right and I want a time line.”
Tshaka said he was hopeful the mayor would pull through and finally get the burial ground the proper treatment.
“I have to see,” he said of the mayor’s promise “A lot of people can talk, I want to see the action.
“The city has a debt to the people buried there, it’s the right thing to do. The community uses it to take a shortcut because there is no symbol in there that it is a burial ground. The city did this when they knew it was a burial ground and desecrated it to put out a playground there for Caucasian children, destroying many of the graves, which was not necessary.”
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart