Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Lombino, Whistling Past the Graveyard

In Sunday's NY Daily News, the paper reports on the possibility that the site of the proposed Flushing Commons is where a graveyard used to sit: "Before the Civil War, a Methodist parish in Flushing buried its dead near where 37th Ave. meets 138th St. today - a fact confirmed by city reports and newspapers. But in 1954, after a perfunctory excavation failed to find human remains there, the city chalked up the cemetery to local lore - and paved it over for a parking lot. Decades later, that decision is facing renewed scrutiny from archaeologists who want the city to dig up the plot yet again - believing bodies still rest where a complex is set to go up next year."

This prospect doesn't sit well with EDC's Dave Lombino-who advances the idea that the opponents of the development are behind the speculation: "The city Economic Development Corp. has dismissed the calls for excavation as thinly veiled attempts to halt construction of Flushing Commons, a mix of housing and retail on the site of the municipal parking lot. An EDC spokesman, David Lombino, argued that opponents of the project - who fear its effect on small businesses and traffic - will jump on anything to stop it before a looming City Council vote. "There are no plans to revisit that determination" of a nonexistent graveyard, Lombino said."

But opponents of the ill conceived Flushing Commons haven't been behind any of this-and the investigation of the Daily News has been sui generis. But the concerns on the part of anthropologists do appear to be quite real: "I would urge that they take another look," said Queens College anthropology Prof. James Moore. He called the case an issue of "heritage, historic preservation and just simple respect for the dead."

The Flushing Coalition's opposition, however, devolves from a respect for the living-and a real fear that the overdeveloped project will turn all of Flushing into one giant small business graveyard. That being said, it does also seem that the original investigation wasn't what any one would call thorough: "But a Daily News investigation has found the city Corporation Counsel's decision to deem the graves "nonexistent" on Feb. 3, 1954, may have been hasty. A spokeswoman for the Law Department said that records of the excavation - two weeks of hand-digging in 1953 that did not turn up any bones - were "not readily available" last week. The spokeswoman, Connie Pankratz, vowed to search in off-site archives in coming weeks. The EDC insists the cemetery does not exist - though their officials cannot produce records showing how the Public Works Agency carried out the excavation."

But when it comes to getting the truth out of EDC, rigorous excavation may be the only possible method-and the News' investigation may mean that the quasi city agency is truly whistling passed the graveyard: "A 1950 story in the Long Island Daily Press even reported two specific burials in church records: "C. Silliman" in 1846 and "Hutson grandchild" in 1857. A city report in 1988 indicated that some bodies from the Methodist graveyard were reinterred in Flushing Cemetery between 1853 and 1867. A Flushing Cemetery superintendent, however, told The News last week that he could not find any records of the Methodist reinterrments - exposing another potential flaw in the city's stance. Even if the exhumations took place, the 1988 report suggested at least 30 bodies were unaccounted for. They could still lie beneath the parking lot - and at the center of one of the most controversial projects in Queens."