Friday, December 19, 2008

Ghost Stories And Tales Of Glories

PARTLY BECAUSE I WANT to learn about the history of my neighborhood and partly because I am in the mood for a Dickensian Christmas, I am posting what I have unearthed, while on semestral break, about the history of the town of Maspeth and other curiosities about it. I also cannot deny the fact that I live two blocks away from Mt. Olivet Cemetery on the highest point of the neighborhood (the best real estate in Queens and Brooklyn belong to the dead, the result of an old zoning measure of the Rural Cemetery Act of 1847 that prevented graves from being washed away by floods), and its 71-acre presence is hard to ignore even in the frenzied city life. I drive by its gates on my way to work each morning; I am even thinking of buying a plot in it in case a heart attack or a driver high on drugs kills me instantly and shipping my remains to the Philippines becomes a burden to my family (I tremble at the thought of being cremated). There is another Pinoy who lives closer to it; the property of drinking buddy Makoy Fernando adjoins the rear of the cemetery with only a grill fence separating his garage from the campo santo, as he calls it. A jolly mechanic from Bay, Laguna who works for the City's water system, he is the least affected by it, much more so on hot summer nights when the chilled beer starts flowing from his Coleman cooler and the liempo and tilapia sizzle on his barbecue. He has even set a mini-theater with a wide-screen TV and karaoke speakers in his garage; his teenage son plays his drums there, indifferent to neighbors departed or not. (His next door neighbor is an NYPD officer who doesn't seem to be bothered by the noise, but knowing Makoy, the diplomatic host and cook, I am sure that he has found a way to the cop's stomach.) On beer party nights when distended drinkers want to take a leak behind Makoy's garage, they have to be warned that desecration of hallowed ground brings doom.

Maybe the residents of Mt. Olivet Cemetery are benevolent, because so far, there have been no signs of curses inflicted on anyone. They include James Maurice (photo above), its 1850 founder whose name survives as a street name. He was a Congressman, landholder and founder of St. Saviour's Church, a cash-strapped heritage church dismantled early this year and transferred, after much protest from civic groups, from its original site in Maspeth to Middle Village when developers purchased the property. He shares his crypt in Mt. Olivet with two brothers and three unmarried sisters. Interesting residents of the cemetery include cosmetics royalty Helena Rubinstein and Prince Matchabelli, gangster Jack Diamond, 25 veterans of the Civil War and their wives, and 16 unidentified victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Other interesting facts and characters in Maspeth history:

1. Maspeth was the first European settlement in Queens, having been founded in 1642 by about 28 English settlers of the Quaker religion, sixteen years after Peter Minuit bought Manhattan island. (The Spanish city of Manila had been existing for about 70 years then.) The town was named "Maspat" after the Mespatches Indians, one of the thirteen tribes of Indians that inhabited the region. The term is translated to mean "at the bad waterplace," referring to the many swamps in the area at the time. At present, there is a street called "Fresh Pond Road" which attests to the once boggy nature of the land. The highest point of the cemetery, however, is 165 feet above sea level, and was used by the Mespatches Indians as a lookout point. (If you look at the picture in my blog header, you can see Manhattan in the background.)

2. It was the summer home of De Witt Clinton (not interred in MOC), once governor of New York who conceived the idea and drew plans for the Erie Canal, to connect the Great Lakes with the Hudson River. Upon completion, the canal made New York City the nation's primary port.

3. The building now housing the Grand Florist on Grand Avenue was once the Queens County Hotel, built in 1851 along what was then Grand Street, an old colonial road. Farmers and tradesmen used to rest here when hauling goods between Williamsburg and towns further east in Queens.

4. Following the immigration waves of the 19th century, Maspeth was home to a shanty town of Ludar gypsies between 1925 and 1939, though this was eventually bulldozed.

5. Maspeth Movie Theater on Grand Avenue and 69th Place is a 1,200-seat theater built around 1924 and showed movies until 1965. Judy Garland performed here live before becoming a screen star. The theater’s lobby is now a Rite Aid store and the auditorium a bingo hall.

6. Transfiguration Catholic Church on Perry Avenue was first built in 1909 to serve Maspeth's swelling population of Lithuanian immigrants. The present structure dates from 1962; Lithuanian folk art adorns the inside of the church. The Lithuanian phrase above the doors, Mano Namai Maldos Namai means “My house is a house of prayer.” Masses are still celebrated in the Lithuanian language each weekend.

7. Maspeth is famous for its mafia ties. John Gotti's wake was held at the Papavero Funeral Home on Grand Avenue; the connection has brought the movies and TV to Maspeth. The Sopranos filmed a car chase around Grand Avenue. Clinton Diner on Maurice and Maspeth Avenues, a local truckers' favorite that has been around since 1935, has appeared in more than one motion picture, most famously Goodfellas. The diner is near the site of the former Queens Head Tavern, in use during the Revolutionary War and later a stagecoach stop.

8. Resident Pinoys of Maspeth? Well, aside from Makoy and his family, I know at least five others who go to the same Sunday mass at St. Stanislaus Kostka church: Dr. Asuncion Pacis (my wife's gynecologist), a schoolworker at P.S. 153 and her kids, Sara's classmate Miguel and his family who live on Fresh Pond Road, the deli kid who sells my beer, a bus driver on the Q59 line, and Rebecca, a Visayan girl married to a Polish guy who lives on the same street as Makoy's. Of course, the number swells when Makoy hosts his famous parties, the drunken Pinoy transients from all over Queens sleeping on his living room sofa after the party is over. By the way, 58th Road on which he lives is a dead-end street (yes, there are dead people at the end of the street, too), and its residents have formed a club that closes the street to traffic once every summer to throw a block party that is always fun, complete with alcohol, hired DJs and line dancing. Who cares about the dead?

Now, the ghost stories. On July 27, 1884, The New York Times and The Brooklyn Eagle published them (to put the date into perspective, it was eleven days after El Comercio, a Manila newspaper, announced that Juan Luna's Spoliarium won gold medal in the National Exposition of Fine Arts in Madrid). They are quite compelling; two major New York newspapers reported the same incident front page on the same day, but you be the judge. Also a picture taken in 1936 of what was thought to be a ghost emerging from the rear of Mount Olivet Cemetery at Eliot Avenue, all courtesy of The Juniper Berry. Last is a picture of my family with Makoy (left) on a trip to the Adirondacks and Montreal. Happy Holidays!

1936 photo of a ghost emerging from the rear of Mount Olivet Cemetery
Trip to the Adirondacks

1 comment:

  1. Hi! I found this fascinating! I can't view the article from the NY Times...can you give me the information so that I may view it. Thanks :-)