Wayanda Park in Queens Village, Queens.
For all but the most paranoid of parents, cemeteries and death are perhaps the furthest thing from the mind of someone watching children swinging on monkey bars or happily running through a sprinkler. There are however, a number of playgrounds around New York City (and many more parks) that are built above burial grounds.
When it comes to building on top of graves, there is a fine line between memorialization and desecration. But what if the playground is the memorial? Some communities have embraced their playground’s legacy while others are only just discovering it, but each of these former cemetery tells a unique story of what the neighborhood was like hundreds of years ago and how the ever-changing city became what it is today.
1. Martin’s Field Playground, Flushing
The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground (formerly Martin’s Field) is a memorial park on the site of the Colored Cemetery of Flushing. An active cemetery from 1840 until 1898, it was a public cemetery where many victims of the cholera and smallpox epidemic were buried. Later, it served as the final resting place of many members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. There may be as many as 1,000 people buried under the park. An investigation in 1996 found that over sixty percent of those buried there are of African decent, and more than half are children under the age of five.
In 1936, WPA workers, under the leadership of Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, developed the site and turned it into Martin’s Field Playground. The large playground, which covered the entire burial ground, featured a wading pool, a baseball field, and a handball court, in addition to see-saws and swing. When they dug the wading pool, workers reported finding “bones galore,” as well as pennies that had been used to cover the eyes of the dead. There were only four tombstones still standing at the time, however, so the Parks Department moved forward with the project since there was no way to identify the vast majority of the remains.
A memorial in The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground honoring the dead who are buried there.
In 2004, as part of a major restoration project, the city built a new, smaller (and safer) playground on the northernmost part of the old cemetery. The rest of Martin’s Field was turned into a landscaped memorial park that honors the memory of the people buried beneath it while also serving the local community. The Parks Department took care not to disturb any of the graves when it built the new playground. The park’s name was changed to “The Olde Towne of Flushing Burial Ground” in 2009.