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Douglaston homeowners seek to preserve graves

The burial site, a forested area that borders the backyards...

By Ayala Ben-Yehuda

A group of Douglaston homeowners is fighting to preserve what they believe to be a native American and black burial ground behind a privately held lot near the Douglaston Plaza shopping center.

The burial site, a forested area that borders the backyards of several houses on 242nd Street near Douglaston Parkway, was one that neighbors “had kept as our own piece of history for many years,” said Sam DaGrossa, president of the Winchester Estates Civic Association.

DaGrossa’s group, local homeowners and Bayside activist Mandingo Tshaka have joined forces in a drive to gather support for preserving the burial site, which they say is well documented even though it carries no physical markers.

DaGrossa, a 41-year resident of the area, remembered children digging and finding artifacts such as arrowheads and pots in the ground years ago behind Arthur and Betty Rosin’s house on 242nd Street, an area designated as Lot 70 on old city maps.

In a July 2 letter to the Department of City Planning and Landmarks Preservation Commission, DaGrossa cited the findings of the Queens Topographical Bureau, which surveyed the site on Dec. 18, 1923. The results showed four graves with headstones in what was then called “No. 19 Cornell Cemetery,” his letter says.

According to a publication called “Private and Public Cemeteries in the Borough of Queens,” the headstones belonged to Emmeline Penny, who died in 1850; Samuel Cornell, who died in 1841; John Cornell, who died in 1847; and Atletter Ann Herricks, who died in 1849.

Homeowners have submitted documents to the Planning Department from the Queens Historical Society showing that a black church near the graves, the New Life Baptist Church, owned the cemetery in 1822.

DaGrossa’s letter said Matinecock pots found on the site have been authenticated by the American Museum of Natural History.

The land was sold to a “private concern” in violation of city and state laws that require cemeteries to be preserved, DaGrossa wrote.

DaGrossa said Betty Rosin died about 1996. Neighbors now fear that the grave sites may be disturbed by the current owner of Rosin’s house, who they said is tied to a developer.

Finance Department records show the house is now owned by International Management Corp., which could not be reached for comment.

Buildings Department spokeswoman Ilyse Fink said an unknown party had inquired into subdividing the property in February but that no official permits had been requested.

The inquiry “shook up” neighbors, said DaGrossa, who feared both losing the burial ground and the possible construction of new houses.

“It’ll definitely cause an impact in the general area because the streets are too narrow,” he said.

Tshaka, who is African American and Matinecock, said of the burial site “it’s ancient and it should be protected.”

“There’s enough of this going on in the city, disrespecting the dead,” said Tshaka, who helped extract a promise from the city to build a memorial over the Martins Field park and playground in Flushing, which was also once a burial ground.

“The city is mandated to maintain and give perpetual care to such burial sites,” he said.

Teddie Roslonowski, a 242nd Street resident whose property includes part of the cemetery land, said “this whole thing is really about preserving the community we all chose to live in.”

Homeowners disputed a 1998 geophysical reading done by a developer that did not find any grave sites on the property.

Roslonowski’s husband, Charlie, said the survey was only performed on the upland portion of the hill, not on the slope where the graves were located.

Though neighbors have only recently begun their battle to save the land in earnest, Tshaka had one message for the city:

“We want it back.”

Reach reporter Ayala Ben-Yehuda by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 146.

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