Historic Woodside site transformed into a community garden
January 14, 2022 By Sarah Kerson
In 2017, two Woodside residents came together with one goal in mind: to clean up a historic site on 51st Street across from the Woodside homes that had become an eyesore.
“It was so overgrown,” said Elizabeth O’Connor, who along with then-neighbor Samantha Yeung organized efforts to create a community garden on land that still houses an 18and century family cemetery. “I couldn’t realize how much trash people put here.”
O’Connor and Yeung began with community outreach sessions at O’Connor’s Woodside apartment to hear neighbors talk about their visions for the overgrown land – long known as the Moore family cemetery. -Jackson – located at 51st Street, between 31st and 32n/a avenues.
The property is owned by the Queens Historical Society, and the couple got permission from the organization before moving forward with their plans. The site includes a cemetery – with historic headstones – on part of the property.
Local volunteers and representatives of GrowthNYC helped build raised beds and outdoor furniture such as benches. Last year the Astoria Woodworkers Collective helped build a puppet theatre, and the Island Bee Project added two beehives to the space.
Today, the site, officially called Moore-Jackson Cemetery and Community Garden, produces enough vegetables for some to be distributed to Sunnyside-Woodside Mutual Aid, a neighborhood organization that provides food to those in need and maintains a free community refrigerator.
But long before the community garden, the land was home to the Moore-Jackson families and included their Dutch farmhouse which stood on the property from 1705 to 1901. The house was demolished, but several family headstones remain on the land to this day.
Writing for the Queens Historical Society in 1999, Celia Bergoffen describe the Moores as “a family of wealthy landowners who played prominent roles in Queens history.”
Meanwhile, the Jacksons were another wealthy family at the time – one of them marrying into the Moore family.
Jason Antos, acting director of the Queens Historical Society, said the Moore-Jackson Cemetery is one of the oldest surviving family cemeteries in Queens. Such places were once commonplace across the country, he said.
“There really wasn’t any established cemetery business before the 1800s,” he said. Antos said most family cemeteries have since been lost to development. “But the Moore-Jackson is one of the few that survived by sheer luck.”
A surviving descendant of the Moore family sold the land to the Queens Historical Society in 1999 for one dollar. It became a city landmark in 1997 and remained virtually unused land for 20 years.
“It was a dump four years ago, and now it’s this incredible community hub that brings people together and gives them access to fresh food and green spaces,” said Jessica Coyle, a composting volunteer at the garden. “I mean, what an amazing thing to have done.”
The garden hosts events for community members, such as a holiday market in December where local Queens vendors sold artwork, crafts, and gifts.
O’Connor said the garden has attracted a significant number of volunteers during the pandemic. They started collecting compost last year when the town went out of business.
“So many people craved interaction with others and outdoor space,” she said. “I just wanted to be with other people.”