A PLACE OF DIGNITY FALLS ON HARD TIMES
Librado Romero/The New York Times
A temporary marker at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on Staten Island. The cemetery is struggling with financial troubles.
The Canada geese fly into Frederick Douglass Memorial Park every morning, leaving their droppings on the decrepit asphalt roads and their webbed prints on the small grave markers lying flat against the soft ground. These days, they are the most frequent visitors.
Librado Romero/The New York Times
Because the gravestones at Frederick Douglass are nearly flush with the ground, the cemetery feels parklike to its neighbors.
The park, an African-American cemetery nearly filled to capacity, surrounded by middle-class homes in the Richmond Town neighborhood of Staten Island, has mounting debts and few ways to make money. Frederick Douglass is not buried here; the cemetery was renamed for him in 1935 when a black funeral director recast it as a place where the city’s black residents could be buried with dignity and not simply confined to the least desirable areas of local burial lawns.
On a recent day off, Donna Giello-Borgia, a second-grade teacher at Public School 329 in Coney Island, whacked at a pole-bound scarecrow using an old pipe wrench, driving it into a patch of grass on the front lawn of her semidetached home on Corona Avenue in Richmond Town. Her backyard looks out at the northwest end of the cemetery, yielding views of soft grassy slopes, oaks, willows and the noisy comings and goings of geese.
Sometimes, she said, she’s treated to what she called the “interesting” ways people celebrate their dead, be it a family’s graveside picnic or a gathering of a few young men sharing a bottle of “something” with someone in the ground.
Ms. Giello-Borgia said that when she first moved to Richmond Town from Brooklyn eight years ago, the cemetery was poorly maintained and was a hangout for young people who often dumped trash. Now, she says, the grounds are better kept, and because of the low profile of the gravestones, it’s like having a park beyond her backyard.
One of the main reasons the cemetery has survived — and, in fact, is in better shape — is Arthur Friedman, president and superintendent of the nearby United Hebrew Cemetery. Mr. Friedman became a court-appointed receiver for the cemetery in 2005, taking stock of its debts and embarking on a hunt for assets that recovered more than $400,000 from 18 to 20 banks. He is unpaid for his work at Frederick Douglass.
“Sometimes you really need to get out and do things you’re not obligated to do but that really need to get done,” he said.
The cemetery is drowning in debt, Mr. Friedman said, including an unpaid workers’ compensation judgment of $600,000 and a New York City water bill of $17,000, most of it interest and penalties.
At the same time, business is slowed by a lack of space. Eight years ago, the cemetery had 150 burials. In 2005, there were 125, and last year there were 72 burials and seven cremations. The money is barely enough to pay the clerk and two groundskeepers.
In the cemetery’s musty office, a one-story cottage on the north end of the grounds, a small dog-eared paperback biography of Frederick Douglass, a children’s book, sits on a chest-high wooden counter. The wall facing the front door is covered with portraits of famous black Americans, including Harriet Tubman and Richard Allen, the former slave who founded the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
This is where Virginia Footman, the cemetery’s clerk, spends hours flipping through old index cards like an old-time librarian, cross-referencing information with names in a handwritten ledger. There are more names in the office than there are gravestones outside because thousands are buried in “nontitled” communal graves, a softer version of a potter’s field where several unrelated people are buried in the same deep plot.
“There’s a lot of lost souls back there, because they don’t have no gravestones,” Ms. Footman says, referring to the northwest end of the cemetery, where there are fewer marked graves. “People come in and ask, ‘Why is my father buried here?’ ” she says, adopting a complaining voice. “At that time, it was a money issue for black people.”
News of the cemetery’s financial troubles, reported in The Staten Island Advance, has begun to worry some of the relatives of those buried there. Ms. Footman says she is getting calls from people who haven’t visited their loved ones in years.
With the help of Lynn Rogers, executive director of Staten Island’s Friends of Abandoned Cemeteries, Mr. Friedman will hold a town meeting for plot owners at 1 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Cromwell Recreation Center, Pier 6 and Murray Hulbert Avenue in Tompkinsville. The hope is that family members will put up some money to keep the cemetery going.
Outside, behind the office, the smell of motor oil and diesel fuel filled the air. Eugene Fields, one of the groundskeepers, an unlit cigar in his mouth, stood with a shovel as his colleague, Dana Murray, maneuvered a rusty backhoe that creaked and whined as it moved a pile of earth onto a week-old grave.
The two stocky men laughed when asked how old the backhoe was. With aging equipment and little pay — they haven’t had a raise in five years — they struggle to keep the cemetery from falling apart.
They dig graves, cut grass, weed, mend fences, clear fallen branches, flatten mounds over graves and rake leaves. And they help visitors find their buried relatives and friends. “Sometimes they call and we’ll mark it. We tell them there’ll be a pink ribbon,” Mr. Murray said. “They come and find it that way. We try to do the best we can.”
DEATH OF FRED DOUGLASS; The Negro Leader Dies Suddenly in His Own Hallway. APPARANTLY IN PERFECT HEALTH He Attended the Convention of the Women’s National Council and Was to Have Spoken Last Night. DEATH OF FRED DOUGLASS
February 21, 1895, Wednesday
Page 1, 3194 words
WASHINGTON, Feb. 20. — Frederick Douglass dropped dead in the hallway of his residence on Anacostia Heights this evening at 7 o’clock. He had been in the highest spirits, and apparently in the best of health, despite his seventy-eight years, when death overtook him. [ END OF FIRST PARAGRAPH ]