What to Do with That Old Cemetery in South Williamsburg?

11/03/2010 8:35 AM |

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Cemeteries have been responsible for some of New York’s most valued green spaces: both Washington Square Park and Bryant Park, for example, were once graveyards, said Cindy VandenBosch, a local tour guide—open lots saved from development that were later disinterred and repurposed for public use. If a few organizations in Brooklyn have their way, The Naval Hospital Cemetery might soon be added to that list.

Located in the southeast corner of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Naval Hospital Cemetery site is a 1.7-acre lot along Kent Avenue, near Williamsburg Street West. It was active from 1834 to 1910, during which some 2,000 Marines and Navy men (and some civilian family members) of various ethnicities were laid to rest there. Around 1926, their bodies were moved to Cypress Hills.

The Navy Yard eventually converted the spot into baseball fields until one day, “the story goes, someone kicked a bone,” said Shani Liebowitz of the Brooklyn Navy Yard Development Corporation—because a cemetery, especially one with poorly kept records, is difficult to disinter completely.

The Navy Yard removed the ball fields and allowed the site to grow wild. Today, it is a small field of overgrown grasses, trees, flowers and weeds. There are no headstones. It’s tucked behind fences marked “GOVERNMENT PROPERTY NO TRESSPASSING,” adjacent to the “old gas station” site, across the street from an active BP station. The B.Q.E. runs parallel to its southern fence; feral cats have made it their home. Most people biking by don’t even know it’s there.

But the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative, which is working to create 14 miles of mostly waterfront bike and pedestrian paths to connect Greenpoint to Bay Ridge, is eager to incorporate the site into their grand design—as a stop along the way, not unlike the outlooks along scenic highways. The B.G.I. and several design firms, working together, presented to the public on Monday evening their preliminary plan for a publicly accessible wildflower meadow, which would function as a pollinator habitat, which in turn would have a positive influence on nearby community gardens—roughly estimated to number 50 in a two-mile radius from the proposed site—and local backyards. The designers would work with many of the plants already present, pushing back against aggressive species while promoting the plants that foster biodiversity.

The space is unique because developing it requires “no ground disturbance”; it’s still considered a sacred resting place. The plan takes this, painstakingly, into account: the native flowers require no tilling to plant; the boardwalk that would function as a perimeter path would simply sit on the ground—as opposed to being balanced on dug-in posts—but its elevated height would encourage visitors not to stray off path. “It keeps it sorta sacred,” said Thomas Woltz, the project’s landscape architect.

“People can be the spectators,” added Milton Puryear, of the Greenway Initiative.

Moving forward, B.G.I. and B.N.Y.D.C. will fine-tune the plan, nail down specifics, develop a cost estimate, and secure funding. Another public information session will be held some time in the future, of which The L will keep you updated!

One Comment

  • Good story. One correction. The sailors and Marines that were disinterred were moved to Cypress Hills National Cemetery, not Cypress Hills Cemetery, which is a private cemetery. Both are on Jamaica Avenue and 1/4 mile apart, so it’s an easy mistake to make. Cypress Hills National Cemetery is the only U.S. cemetery in the city. It’s worth a visit.