Cypress Hills: it might as well be in Queens

“Here they are saved all expenses of incorporation, roads, and avenues; of entrances, lodges, chapels, and receiving vaults; of office rent, trustees, treasurers, secretaries; and of the perpetual outlays for keepers of the grounds, gardeners, artists, and embellishments.”

– Jared W. Bell, 1849, on why benevolent and religious societies should purchase plots in the new Cypress Hills Cemetery

The Brooklyn-Queens border around Cypress Hills is awash in cemeteries – 18, to be exact. I suppose this is why much of the material I amassed in my research on this neighborhood related to one of the largest, Cypress Hills Cemetery. Founded in 1848 and opened in 1851, its 225 acres hold several notable names, including Mae West, Jackie Robinson, and Harry Houdini [edited: my source was incorrect. Thanks to Frank Lally for pointing this out].

Prices for the new Cemetery of the Cypress Hills, 1849.

Strangely enough, the cemetery was the terminus for the neighborhood’s first elevated train. It opened May 30, 1893 – Memorial Day. (Cemeteries were big tourist attractions in the era before local parks were commonplace; recall that Green-Wood Cemetery was once in the running for the most popular tourist attraction in the United States.)

While its main entrance is in Brooklyn, the majority of the cemetery’s land lies in the neighboring borough. Coincidentally, the transformation of Cypress Hills from a Dutch and Huegenot enclave in the early 19th century was due to activities in Queens.

In 1821, the Union Course racetrack opened just over the border in what is today Woodhaven. A few men with close ties to the Legislature had convinced their cronies to lift the ban on horseracing – but only on sites in Queens County. (Genius.) The track’s first huge event was the 1823 North-versus-South battle of American Eclipse and Sir Henry, won by the North; the South got revenge in 1845, when Alabama’s Peytona defeated New Jersey’s Fashion. At Snediker’s Hotel during the race, armed men guarded three hogsheads of wagered money.

Approximation of the area of Union Course, based on these maps.

The new destination was a boon for the future Cypress Hills – then called Union Place or Unionville – with roadhouses, stores, and gambling establishments popping up everywhere. It was also lucrative for the operators of the Jamaica Plank Road, now Jamaica Avenue. The Brooklyn, Jamaica, and Flatbush Turnpike Company widened the road in 1809 (with wooden planks on the sides, hence the name), and in return were given the right to collect tolls. They and their successors made bank on race days, thanks in part to some people who were in too much of a rush to get to the track to wait for their change.

When Union Course closed after the Civil War, a place named Dexter Park picked up the sporting slack. Originally home to a stable and a training ground for trotters, and used for pigeon-shooting, by the mid-1880s baseball had taken hold. Although the park, like the racetrack, was just over the county line in Queens, the major attractions branded themselves with the Brooklyn name: the Brooklyn Royal Giants, a Negro League team, and the Brooklyn Bushwicks, a semi-pro team.

Dexter Park, viewed from the outfield. (From covehurst.net)

Max Rosner, the owner of the Bushwicks, had an interesting approach for filling seats. He would attract big-name teams from the Negro Leagues (including the Royal Giants, after they had left) and all-stars from the bigs, including a squad with both Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. (Rosner’s Cypress Hill nine were much less successful, losing one game 23-0.) The venue also hosted collegiate football games, boxing matches, and, in its dying days, stock-car races.

John Pitkin had developed the area’s western end in the 1830s, and in the 1890s, the new elevated line allowed others to complete the job. What’s now the BMT Jamaica Line, served by the J and Z trains, was extended to Jamaica in 1916; by the 1920s, the neighborhood was full.

Many of those new residents were immigrants: German, Irish, Italian, Polish. Those of you who have followed my histories of other neighborhoods in eastern New York can probably guess what happened in the 1960s and 1970s.

The population in the 1980s was mostly blacks and Hispanics, and the neighborhood had a serious drug issue. Some referred to Cypress Hills as “the worst of both worlds”: city problems with none of the perks. One leader called a 32-block stretch of Fulton Street “a drug-pusher’s paradise“, and helped organize a 1987 march, while another summed up the area as follows: ”If you see the same house going up for sale every year, you know you don’t have a stable neighborhood.” Drug wars continued into the 1990s, although things seem to have gotten better since then.

Some fun facts about the boneyards: the Jackie Robinson Parkway (formerly the Interborough, renamed in 1997 on the 50th anniversary of Robinson’s breaking the color barrier) cuts through Cypress Hills Cemetery. Although this opened under the auspices of – who else – Robert Moses in 1935, plans for an extension of Eastern Parkway through the burial ground stretch back to 1894. Here are proposals from 1901 and 1908, which look much the same as what eventually was built:

And then there’s the specter of Vendovi, the man from “Feejee” who was brought to New York in 1842. Vendovi was the chief of a cannibalistic tribe, and was captured by the U.S. Exploring Expedition as retaliation for killing (and possibly eating) several members of a previous crew. He died within days of arrival, perhaps from “consumption in consequence probably of having no human flesh to eat” (although more likely from tuberculosis). His body was buried at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while his head – an anthropological marvel at the time – was shipped off to the Smithsonian. Many of the Navy Yard’s bodies were eventually moved to the federal Cypress Hills National Cemetery, including the good chief’s, and his ghost has been known to wander around, looking for his head.

Bound sources:

Baseball’s peerless semipros: the Brooklyn Bushwicks of Dexter Park by Thomas Barthel (St. Johann Press, 2009).

The Cemetery of the Cypress Hills by Jared W. Bell (self-published, 1849).

The great match race: when North met South in America’s first sports spectacle by John Eisenberg (Houghton Mifflin, 2006).

The neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Kenneth T. Jackson, Ed. (Yale University Press, 2004).

A history of New Lots, Brooklyn to 1887: including the villages of East New York, Cypress Hills, and Brownsville by Alter F. Landesman (Kennikat Press, 1977).

Brooklyn’s East New York and Cypress Hills communities by Brian Merlis and Riccardo Gomes (Gomerl Publishing, 2004).

Newspaper articles without links:

“Public set on road through Cypress Hills Cemetery”, Brooklyn Eagle, January 5, 1908.

“Homey Cypress Hills wakes up the echoes”, New York Daily News, November 17, 2002.

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2 Responses to Cypress Hills: it might as well be in Queens

  1. Frank Lally says:

    Though Cypress Hills Cemetery may like to add Harry Houdini’s final resting place to its notables, he is actually interred across Cypress Hills Street at Machpelah Cemetery, Queens, NY.

  2. Keith says:

    Frank – you are absolutely right. Thanks for correcting me. My 1963 source was wrong (or maybe Houdini was trying to throw people off from beyond the grave), but I could have fact-checked that one easily.

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