Honor the dead under the playground: CB 4 1

Dozens of Elmhurst’s earliest residents are buried under Newtown Playground at the corner of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street. One area preservationist is hoping to have the city install a memorial to the dead during this year’s renovation of the park.

Lifelong Elmhurst resident Marialena Giampino grew up hearing stories about the neighborhood’s settlers and how they are buried underneath Newtown Playground at the intersection of 56th Avenue and 92nd Street.

She thinks it’s about time the city and community officially recognize the history below the slides and climbing equipment.

“The goal is to get some type of memorial or plaque commemorating the people buried there,” Giampino said. “To the normal person who maybe isn’t from Elmhurst, they don’t know what’s there.”

According to a 1932 city report on cemeteries, provided to the Chronicle by Giampino, at least 86 people were buried at what was called Old Newtown Cemetery.

The first funeral took place in 1729, about 75 years after the neighborhood was founded and more than four decades prior to the American Revolution.

Some of the neighborhood’s most prominent residents were buried there, with entire families interred alongside each other on the site.

Eventually, the cemetery served as a potter’s field — the final resting place for unknown or indigent residents — until about 1880, with the Parks Department taking over the location in 1917.

A decade later, the surviving headstones were all laid flat and covered with soil so playground equipment and a drinking fountain could be installed.

Giampino brought up the site’s history to Community Board 4, of which she is a member, last week, saying now would be the perfect time to memorialize those who are buried there.

“The park is about to be renovated,” the Newtown Civic Association preservation officer told the Chronicle on Tuesday. “I wanted to let the board know that maybe we should incorporate a memorial or plaque in those renovations.”

At Giampino’s request, CB 4 unanimously voted to send a letter to the city, asking for some sort of memorial to be included in the project.

The letter will be drafted in the near future, according to CB 4 District Manager Christian Cassagnol.

Plans for Newtown Playground this year include the installation of a lawn, new seatings, additional plantings and a plaza. A Parks Department spokesperson told the Chronicle on Wednesday that the Public Design Commission would have to review CB 4’s request.

“The design for Newtown Playground has already been approved by the Public Design Commission,” the spokesperson said. “Any major changes to the design would need to be reviewed by them.”

The $1.4 million project should be completed in June, according to the city.

Should a memorial be secured, Giampino hopes it would be the first of many historic landmarks across the neighborhood.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have historical markers in Elmhurst and have it be like some sort of trail?” she said. “We think our history here is remarkable. And if other people get to learn about it, we think that would be pretty great.”

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