Lilacs and Forgotten Homesites

Sadly, the lilac season is coming to a close. In her 1959 book, Plants That Changed the World, author Bertha S. Dodge cited the lilac as an example of plants that serve as place markers for people.  She noted that even after people have moved on, lilacs and bright orange day lilies remain in place near former dwellings. The flowers return, loyally each year, in exactly the place where they were planted, “to grow and flower and bear mute testimony to forgotten homesites.”

My late mother-in-law’s lilac bushes and tiny, cream-colored lilies of the valley are a good example of this phenomenon.  They abide in a flower bed on the border of the former Carter family homestead in Neponsit.  Ironically, the new owners of the towering, million-dollar plus, mausoleum-like gold brick structure that replaced the family’s modest and gracious white-pillared colonial have allowed the yard (and the city’s tree lawns on the sidewalks around the entire corner property) to deteriorate into a sea of dandelions and other weeds.  I guess it’s ok to let the property “go to pot” because it’s up for sale?  What a disgrace.  When they knocked down the old and put up the new, the developers bricked over Fran’s flower beds, and installed tall iron fences around the property’s edge, but the lilacs and lilies of the valley crept out from under the bricks and the fence to find light and water in the next-door-neighbor’s flower bed.  Bravo!

Cemeteries are another type of place marker for our civilization.  With cremation becoming more common, the headstones of old will become enduring markers for previous generations.  In many cases, developers are as disrespectful of gravestones as they are of flower beds like my mother-in-law’s.  I read about a playground that was constructed by the New York City Parks Department in the 1930’s in an outer borough neighborhood (I think it was Newtown Creek).  They knocked the tombstones flat and paved over them.

At an awards ceremony of the Historic Districts Council (HDC) held in the breathtakingly beautiful outdoor garden of Plymouth Church of the Pilgrims in Brooklyn Heights last Thursday, May 12, honoree Jeffrey Gottlieb of the Central Queens Historical Association spoke about a variation on police interrogation techniques he calls: “Good Parks, Bad Parks.”  The “bad” Parks Department evicted the residents of bungalows from Cedar Grove Beach Club on Staten Island in 2009.  The group of residents was given an HDC award, even though they have lost their battle to save their summer colony, so far.

The “good” Parks Department, in the person of Queens Commissioner Dotty Lewandowski, has supported restoration of Prospect Cemetery near the York College Campus in downtown Jamaica.  Through a public-private partnership, the architecturally significant “Chapel of the Sisters” at that site was turned into a restored jazz performance space.  Lewandowski had help from another HDC award winner, Cate Ludlam, a descendant of the Ludlam family that built the chapel in Prospect Cemetery.  Ludlam, a breast cancer survivor,  honored her ancestors by spearheading the restoration.

I have reached out to seek Ludlam’s help with a related preservation cause.  Just two blocks from Prospect Cemetery, the final resting spot of numerous members of the Holland family, the original settlers of the Holland section of Rockaway Beach, sits unattended, behind a chain-link fence near a parking lot on the York College campus.  The photo above shows the present condition of the cemetery.  The large tombstone with the shield-shaped detail is the memorial to Michael P. and Fanny R. Brush Holland, who moved to Rockaway in 1856 to operate the Holland Hotel.  Yes, that’s a discarded office chair sharing the plot!  The cemetery is called the “Methodist Cemetery at Jamaica,” but no Methodists have had anything to do with it for decades, and nobody can figure out who owns the land at present.  Detective work to answer the question and reach out to far-flung Holland family descendants and other volunteers for a clean-up effort is ongoing.  Send a comment to my blog if you are interested in assisting with this project.

Text and photos copyright 2011 Vivian R. Carter

About rockviv

You've entered the cyber-locale of Vivian Rattay Carter, a grant writer employed by Women's Housing and Economic Development Corporation in The South Bronx. I've lived and worked in the New York metro area since 1979, in diverse places like Astoria and Rockaway Beach (Queens), Kensington and Windsor Terrace (Brooklyn), Grand Street and Tribeca (Manhattan), and Norwood, Woodlawn, and Riverdale (The Bronx). I treasure the amazing parks, architecture, and cultural institutions of our multicultural city, as well as the musicians and music lovers who enjoy congregating here.
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