Society Adventures: A History of Neglect and 19th Century Judaism in Bayside Cemetery
Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Most New Yorkers only view Bayside Cemetery in a glimpse from the A train on the way to JFK or the Rockaways, the overgrowth of trees and other plants shrouding the whole place in an urban forest. Yet the cemetery in Ozone Park, Queens, is one of the city's significant cornerstones of the history of Judaism in New York in the 19th century. However, for years, almost since it was first opened in 1865, the cemetery has been a victim of neglect and vandalism. Volunteers are working to return peace to the burial ground, including Anthony Pisciotta who has dedicated himself to preserving and repairing the cemetery. Earlier this month, Pisciotta led the Obscura Society on an exploration of Bayside and shared his extensive knowledge of its history.
Bayside Cemetery, with a view to the A train tracks (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Around 35,000 people are buried in Bayside Cemetery, representing a strong Jewish community from all walks of New York life, from religious leaders to veterans going back to the Civil War to a Titanic victim to a woman lost in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Their diversity is reflected in their memorials, which often reflect their identifications with being German or a citizen of the Victorian era, with elaborate mausoleums and ornate markers, rather than just their religion.
Andy Schultz of CAJAC and tour guide Anthony Pisciotta with the Obscura Society visitors (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Joining our visit was Andy Schultz, the executive director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries (CAJAC), which has also been organizing volunteers to clear the layers of dead leaves, fix up broken mausoleums, and generally help get the cemetery on its way to being a welcoming place for those who come here to remember and to honor those who rest in its earth.
The land where Bayside Cemetery is located actually has three cemeteries, with Acacia Cemetery on the east and Mokom Sholom on the west. You know when you enter Bayside as you're suddenly the shadows of slender rising trees that cast dappled light on dirt paths. It was once as orderly as the better-preserved Acacia, yet incidents including the opening of mausoleums and revealing of remains, even the setting on fire of corpses and mausoleums, left Bayside in a horrific state of disarray. It may still look like it's in a bad state, but just compare the photos here to these Citynoise photos from 2008 and you'll see the vast improvements made by Pisciotta and CAJAC. A group of volunteer undertakers also replaced remains in simple coffins before wrecked mausoleums were sealed with layers of cinderblocks. Graffiti tags have been cleaned off the marble and granite tombstones, and just recently Pisciotta pieced together a delicate statue of an angel that marked a child's grave.
Allison Meier from Atlas Obscura with our tour guide Anthony Pisciotta (photograph by Randall Tilson)
As Pisciotta explained, he's not Jewish, nor does he have family buried in Bayside, yet we should all feel a universal need to give respect to the dead. Below are some more photographs from the Obscura Society's afternoon in Bayside Cemetery:
Walking a dirt path in the cemetery (photograph by Allison Meier)
Anthony Pisciotta discussing the cemetery's history (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Stained glass and the cemetery in a mausoleum window reflection (photograph by Ainsley McWha)
These gates mark the entrance to a society's burial area (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Another society entrance gate (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Lion on one of the gates (photograph by Ainsley McWha)
Walking down one of the cemetery paths (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Anthony Pisciotta leading our group in the cemetery (photoraph by Randall Tilson)
Viewing a children's burial area (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Exploring one of the more overgrown areas of Bayside Cemetery (photograph by Allison Meier)
Obscura Society in Bayside Cemetery (photograph by Randall Tilson)
Thanks so much to all who joined us at Bayside Cemetery, and especially to Anthony Pisciotta for leading the tour and to Andy Schultz at CAJAC. We look forward to seeing you all at the next Obscura Society event!
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!