Zigzagging across the county line in Cypress Hills

If crossing between Brooklyn and Queens required a passport, I would have shown my papers many times on Saturday. The border cuts through Cypress Hills Cemetery and a school campus, both of which I intended to visit. Surprisingly, at no point did I see any markers celebrating the change.

I’m dividing this post into two parts: the cemetery and the neighborhood.

The approximate border is in purple. A confession: when I was there, I thought the southern boundary was Fulton Street, not Atlantic Avenue.

But first, a preview: I’ve developed a fascination for Broadway Junction, the cluster of MTA tracks in East New York that gave rise to one of my neighborhoods. The A, E, J, L, and Z trains meet here, service tracks and abandoned lines go every which way, and there’s a huge yard to the north. Give me enough Play-Doh, and I’ll give this a shot once it comes out of the hat. Maybe I’ll organize a Kickstarter campaign to fund my purchase.

Part one: the cemetery

The entrance to Cypress Hills Cemetery is grand. It sure beats the rusted-wrought-iron gates you typically see in cemeteries.

Here are graves of two prominent men in Brooklyn history: John R. Pitkin (the one who first divided New Lots into parcels) and Daniel Henry Sands (whose family name belongs to one of the streets in Downtown Brooklyn leading to the Navy Yard).

I was surprised to see many Chinese graves. The first picture was taken while I stood on the Brooklyn-Queens border, looking into Queens. (The second is entirely in Queens, although there were a few clusters in Brooklyn.)

Jackie Robinson is buried in Queens, an unfortunate quirk of geography for this great man. His grave was adorned with baseballs, memorabilia, flags, rocks, and, on his footstone, a single dried flower.

On his headstone is a quote attributed to him: ”A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” I found the message on this baseball particularly moving in that light.

Cypress Hills Cemetery is still open for new burials; crews have been at work preparing them.

Of course, they might want to attend to those who have already paid their fees.

I did not make it to Mae West’s grave, even though it’s close to the entrance. Sorry, Mae, I’ll have to come up and see you some other time.

Part two: the neighborhood

The J/Z (BMT Jamaica Line) has a pair of kinks in rapid succession near the cemetery. Originally, the line’s terminus was at the cemetery gates, but when they extended service to Archer Avenue in Queens, they had to twist it again. Crescent Street serves as the north-south thoroughfare connecting Fulton Street and Jamaica Avenue.

Nestled to the southeast of Cypress Hills Cemetery are Maimonides and Mt. Hope Cemeteries. Both looked beaten up. As Maimonides is a Jewish cemetery, and it was Saturday, I was out of luck.

There are signs of life on Jamaica Avenue in the shadow of the elevated tracks. Here is some wall art I found. The one on the right is next to a large karate studio.

The Franklin K. Lane high school campus is an impressive building. For whatever reason, it’s named after the Secretary of the Interior under Woodrow Wilson. According to the Department of Education, the facility now houses five schools.

The Lane building, which dates from 1937, sits on the site of the old Snediker roadhouse. In 1869 the site was used for the Boys’ Truant Home until it burned down in 1924. (You can see it noted in the two maps I put near the bottom of my history post.)

Lane is an unusual place: its mailing address is in Brooklyn, but to get into the campus you have to enter from Queens. The county border runs through the athletic fields and part of the building. Here’s an approximation, the line running from the middle of Eldert Lane on the other side. (This distinction was covered in a Times article a few years ago; click image 4.)

The site of the once-famous Dexter Park, in Woodhaven, is now home to a C-Town supermarket. It is right across from the Lane campus.

Walking down Eldert Lane, which serves as the border, you realize the addresses are different on either side of the street: on the Brooklyn side, they count up from Jamaica Avenue, while the Queens side uses the more-descriptive [cross-street]-[number] (e.g., 88-15).

The houses in Cypress Hills are similar to others I’ve seen from the 1910s-1920s.

Residents were having fun when I went through. There was a block party on Lincoln Avenue, with many meats being grilled and many balls being tossed. And someone on Ridgewood Avenue had figured out how to make a fire hydrant shoot off an impressive spray. I can’t imagine that passing drivers were very pleased, but the little girls running through it certainly were.

To the west, Jamaica Avenue is out of the shadow of the J/Z, but it’s still a depressing place: cemeteries to the north, very little to the south.

Fulton Street, on the other hand, has many retail shops, most geared toward the area’s Latin American and Carib populations. Most of them were closed when I was there, however, even though it was only 5:30.

This abandoned shipping bay might give us a hint to the state of the area.

One neat building is the Blessed Sacrament, a Roman Catholic church on Euclid Avenue. Its twin spires are an iconic sight in this area; unfortunately, the sun was behind the church, so I couldn’t get a good shot from the front or the side.

I saw someone go in, so I followed suit. There was a Spanish Mass in progress, so I stayed in the narthex. The service was supposed to start at 4:00, but an hour and a half later, a few stragglers were still entering, which I found odd.

I put in a healthy walk, but my legs were unhappy with me (I had run a race in the morning) so I decided to abandon my trip to the western part of the neighborhood. I picked up some things to tide me over on the long trip back: a Philly cheesesteak slice from Mike’s Pizza on Fulton Street, and a Lime Rickey soda from a West Indian bodega – a strange place with Indian icons everywhere (as in from India, not from the West Indies).

I waited for the J train at Crescent Street, which has some nice stained glass. I watched the J come around the curve to take me home.

A few shots from my trip back: the busyness of Broadway Junction (with most walking at a Manhattan clip), and a strange door to nowhere at Atlantic Terminal, which I assume is for the conductors.

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6 Responses to Zigzagging across the county line in Cypress Hills

  1. nic says:

    Great post. Even though I grew up on the border line between Queens and Cypress Hills, I never went there as it was considered a “bad” neighborhood (and hardly anyone I knew from my neighborhood went to Franklin K. Lane, even though it was the zoned school) so it’s good to learn about the history and see sights beyond what you see looking down from the elevated subway tracks or the view out the bus window when the J train’s not running. Another little tidbit about Cypress Hills: In A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, it’s the leafy neighborhood the family moves to to escape the tenements of Williamsburg.

  2. If Jamaica West was a depressing place then you missed Highland Park. I lived accross the street from those cemetaries for 16 years. It was very peaceful.

    • Keith says:

      Hi Gerald – thanks for stopping by, and for commenting.

      I treat Highland Park as a separate neighborhood; as chance would have it, I visited it two weeks before I did Cypress Hills. I agree that the two have very different vibes.

      http://theweeklynabe.com/tag/highland-park/

      I’ll be grateful for anything you’d like to share on your 16 years there.

      Keith

  3. Gerald J. Carter says:

    CYPRESS HILLS was a little town within Brooklyn. Parks to get lost and wander in, Cypress Pool, Schools and Churches near by and the YMCA. Military cemetaries and patriotic parades. Great for a kids to grow up back then. Fulton Street with the various stores was great for a kid to earn a few bucks after school. Being a morning paperboy was safe. Neighborhood was safe. So we grew up like “The Beaver”, except we were in Cypress Hills, Brooklyn, New York.

  4. Curreri says:

    Thanks for this wonderful site. It brings back alot of memories. my grandparents lived across from the cemetery near jamaica avenue, and i practically grew up there. It was a really rough neighborhood in the 70s and the cemetery was a neat place to explore for my cousins and me, with its nature and ties to a past that seemed alien and unreal given the social realities in that area at the time. i think Harry Houdini is buried in there and alot of cinema celebraties from the silent era. After i saw this site, it raised good old memories and i found another site linked below with more pics of the cemetery. Apparently Mae West is buried in there too, in one of two abbeys located in Cypress Hills cemetery. Thank you for these photos :)

    http://www.tapeshare.com/CyCem.html

    • Keith says:

      Hi Curreri,

      Thank you for stopping by, and for your compliments! I’m glad to revive Brooklyn history, especially for the benefit of those who lived it.

      I’ve begun a drive to have long-time residents write guest posts for my blog (my first one, by Harley Nemzer, went up the other day). If you might be interested in contributing some memories, please send me an email!

      Keith

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