By Gina Martinez
After Mayor Bill de Blasio’s visit to Flushing for a town hall event last month, members of Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground Conservancy are hoping they are closer to getting the cemetery properly restored.
Conservancy member Beverly Riley called on the mayor to rescue 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 would 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, then 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.
According to conservancy member Robbie Garrison, 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, sending the wrong message. The conservancy said it simply wants the Parks Department to allow available funding to be used to install the proper memorial, such as headstones, so that people in the neighborhood can recognize it as a cemetery and keep their dogs away from the grounds.
A meeting was recently held at Borough President Melinda Katz’s office to advance talks about design and seek additional funding. De Blasio promised the conservancy he would try to make sure there was enough money in the city’s budget to get it done, telling Riley at the town hall meeting he would send a representative to the meeting and would follow up on the progress.
“I want to achieve your goal,” he told her “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.”
Conservancy members, Queens Parks Commissioner Dotty Lewandowski, Nick Gollata from the mayor’s office and a representative from Peter Koo’s office attended the meeting in Borough Hall.
According to Garrison, at the meeting the Parks Dept. showed the design for the burial ground it had submitted to the design commission, which she said the conservancy had not seen before. Garrison said the design people did not like it so Parks said it would come back within six to eight weeks with a new design that everyone could agree on. De Blasio’s representative was insistent that they would have to move forward with the project, the said.
The next day the conservancy traveled to Albany to submit Olde Towne to the State Historic Preservation Office and the board voted unanimously to have the cemetery listed.
Garrison said she was happy the register recognized the cemetery and it was a step in the right direction that might inspire Parks to take her group more seriously.
“We were able to convince the State Historic Preservation Office” she said. “We commend them for doing the right thing. It’s the 10 year anniversary of the recovery and, of course, it goes back further than that. We just believe the place deserves more respect, It should not be treated like a park.”
Garrison said Katz said she wanted to get this project finished before her second term is over.
Reach Gina Martinez by e-mail at gmart