Woodhaven's historic cemetery on 96th Street has been the victim of neglect for many years. Decades, in fact. Below is an article from the Leader-Observer in 1934 - words like desolation, unkempt, neglect, and desecration are used. And while residents of Woodhaven 80 years ago were upset by the conditions of the burial grounds of their founders, not much was done about it.
Note: Interested in Woodhaven's History? The Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society - Woodhaven Research Group - meets on the 1st Tuesday of every month - . There's usually a slide show of old articles and pictures.7 PM at the Avenue Diner (91-06 Jamaica Avenue).
Flash forward to July 2014 when the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society and St. Thomas the Apostle's Woodhaven History Club (led by Teacher Patty Eggers) met on a Saturday morning to start the long process of clearing away the debris - not just the weeds, but the fallen trees and branches, the standing but dead trees, the rubbish that had been dumped. Meeting on the 2nd Saturday of every month, in temps over 90 degrees and in temps under 30, the groups along with many volunteers from Woodhaven and the surrounding communities, patiently hacked away, working their way towards the back fence. And month by month, we saw magnificent progress.
Phase I of the project had a lofty goal: Remove all of the dead wood and establish a regular maintenance schedule, keeping the cemetery weed-free for an entire summer. At the end of the summer of 2015, we had managed to keep it weed-free (most of our cleanup is now being done via lawn mower) - and we had gathered a massive pile of dead trees, branches and debris (see below).
We had scheduled a ceremony making the end of Phase I for November 14th, so one week before, we gathered to remove the pile, making the cemetery look nice for any visitors that might come by. Getting rid of the pile wasn't going to be easy, though -- we were going to need a lot of muscle and a little bit of outside
The muscle we had plenty of - we have so many volunteers that come out once a month, like Ellie below, and have a great time working together. The next cleanup is scheduled for Saturday, December 12th, from 9 AM to 12 PM. Come out and join us, you'll have a terrific time!
The trees and branches were cut into manageable pieces and carted away - and very slowly, our massive pile began to shrink.
The outside help came from Stephen Newell, who donated the use of his private garbage truck. He backed up to the driveway of the cemetery and for the next few hours, our volunteers carted the pile out to the curb and into the back of his truck.
We had talked about bringing it out a piece at a time, one week at a time, but we knew that would take forever. With everyone chipping in, we were making an immediate impact.
The truck was able to do some of the work for us, breaking up some branches that were really thick - but it still required some of Ruben's muscle to get them to the truck!
Here you can see the pile starting to shrink - this was after about 2 hours of hard work - but we still had a long way to go!
Here's Eddie Gardiner toting out a large chunk of dead tree on a hand truck. This huge log sat in the back of the cemetery and had, long ago, fallen down and damaged a tombstone. It took almost an entire cleanup to chop this log into 2 manageable pieces.
The Sawzall cut through branches and logs - making it easier to cart it away.
The pile is starting to disappear!
Just a few more logs to go - this is after about 4 hours of work.
One of our volunteers found a few salamanders. I'd never seen one before. They were sort of cute in a 'worm with hands and eyeballs' sort of way.
Stephen Newell and Jaron Gallagher are happy with the way the day is turning out.
We're down to the very bottom of the pile!
The last log, carried out by Rafael Rosario and John Eggers -
Woodhaven Residents' Block Association's Vice President Giedra Kregzdys and daughter Kristen Deinhardt clearing away the remaining debris - sticks, twigs, probably a few salamanders.
And away it goes! The very last bit of the pile is in the truck!
Wow - what a difference! But of course, now we have a million leaves we have to worry about! Keep scrolling - we get to that soon enough!
The crew took a few moments to smile for the cameras --
And so, a week later, we gathered again. Our ceremony was scheduled for 1 PM so we gathered at our usual 9 AM start time -- and it was a little chilly and windy! But we had a lot of leaves we needed to pick up --
And away we go -- we had a leaf blower, which helped a lot, but most of the had work was picking up the leaves and bagging them, a job made harder by the wind!
And nothing worked better than an old fashioned rake. Here, Anna Rodriguez makes a dent in the massive carpet of leaves.
And so the morning went, with piles of leaves created and bagged.
The Woodhaven Cemetery is a nice quiet place to work - you can easily forget that you're in the city, just a block away from the train.
And there you can see Jamaica Avenue in the not so far distance - but you hardly ever hear the J Train from inside there.
Some of our students from last year have graduated and moved on (though some have continued to visit us and volunteer) - and now we've been joined by a new crew of students who are excited by the project.
And here are two of our parent volunteers who made this project possible - Ellie Roldan and Nubia Martinez.
And here's Tracey and Jaron Gallagher taking a few moments to have some fun.
And here's Kate Brennan, enjoying the quiet solitude the cemetery offers.
And in just a few hours, here's all the leaves we gathered. 92 bags in all.
And here's our crew of volunteers -- if you're not in this picture, why don't you come out next time (December 12th, 9 AM) and be a part of this fun, worthwhile community project?
We had about an hour to kill before the ceremony -- and it was chilly. In among the leaves, someone found an old baseball. So with a branch as a bat, an impromptu baseball game broke out. We can't help but think that the permanent residents of Woodhaven's Cemetery would be so pleased that this group of young people have breathed such life into the land.
And now for a few moments in the sun, awaiting the ceremony.
And after a few speeches, we took a moment to thank our sponsors, such as Assemblyman Miller, and to also thank CM Eric Ulrich and CM Elizabeth Crowley for funding this project -- as well as to thank the Citizen's Committee of New York City, for awarding this group a grant to help finish Phase I.
And after the ceremony, the students took some visitors on a tour of the cemetery -- on top of this being a great green project, one that allows us to get outside and get exercise -- it also continues to be a learning experience for the students as they delve into the history of the permanent residents of Woodhaven's historic cemetery.
And finally, here is our video of the gathering of the leaves -- the ceremony -- and the tour --
If you have any comments, or would like to suggest other projects, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
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Photos by Joey Wendell