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Taking A Tour Of Brooklyn's 'Green Oasis'


Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

For the next few moments, we're going to unfurl a historic story of life and death and how the two are remembered in a Green Oasis in Brooklyn.

By a busy highway that cleaves through the boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens, there's a seemingly endless stone wall. Behind that wall is a cemetery with a gate and a gatekeeper.

Mr. DONATO DADDARIO (Historian, Evergreens Cemetery): Yeah, I am the keeper. I am the gatekeeper. You know, I should have a hunchback and carry a lantern, but…

(Soundbite of laughter)

LYDEN: Meet Donato Daddario, former gravedigger, now historian of the Evergreens Cemetery established in 1849. Daddario's family goes back a generation here.

Mr. DADDARIO: My father did everything here. That's my kid brother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

That's who we just passed. That's my kid - yeah, that's my kid brother. That's the other Daddario, yeah. So we keep it kind of in the family. Yeah, that's my kid brother on the - that's how I started.

LYDEN: When he gives a tour, well, this cemetery comes alive. Merchant seamen, actors, Chinese immigrants, half a million people, half a million stories.

Mr. DADDARIO: The cemetery works with you, and the cemetery works against you. You do things, and it's like the cemetery will give back.

LYDEN: Can you give me an example?

Mr. DADDARIO: All right. There were some times, like when you do a lot of maintenance, and I don't know if it's maybe just the spirits of the people that are just looking out, but if you sometimes walk around the cemetery, and you do a good deed like reset some headstones that are - I basically take care of the old sections, and nobody goes there. Nobody comes to the old sections, and I'm there by myself. We don't get no visitors, hardly any visitors.

So what I do is if I see a stone down, or something has to be cleaned out - and I do it on my own - I'm rewarded. I've found $20 a few times. You know, I feel that there's some kind of energy that gives back if you take care - because you know, you never talk bad about the dead. But that's for one thing.

LYDEN: If you ever come to the Evergreens, and Danny Daddario is giving a tour, he'll probably start at the square, grey resting place of Jonathan Reed(ph).

Mr. DADDARIO: We're standing right now in front of the Jonathan Reed mausoleum, and his wife Mary(ph), who for about 11 years lived in this tomb, Mr. Reed, after his wife's death. The reason why he lived in this tomb is because he believed that if his wife ever came back to life, his face would be the first one to see.

They were passionately in love. One of the things that he did after her death was put a lot of her favorite things in here. Some of the things in here that are in here now is they had a parrot. They had a pet squirrel. There are photographs in here. There are some paintings that are in here.

LYDEN: A parasol, some elephant tusks hanging off a shelf, red curtains, their wedding dinette set, the saucers, silverware, teacups, a bust of Teddy Roosevelt.

Mr. DADDARIO: It's not that big, but you want to know something? He had a potbelly stove in here, a small potbelly stove. If you look on the top, there is a pipe that's laying down. That's the chimney.

He would sit out here in his rocking chair. This used to be an enclosed lot at one time, but he would sit out here and literally talk to everybody in the cemetery that came by because they believed that he knew something about the afterlife.

In fact, Tibetan monks came all the way here from Tibet to see if he knew something about the dead or the afterlife, which he didn't. He was just really in love with his wife.

He's on the right side; she's on the left. The casket that she was laid out in was specially made. It had a door on the front of it that you can open up. He would actually open the door and look into her face, actually Reed (unintelligible).

LYDEN: There could be no more perfect spot to tell a love story than here, where old hills, footpaths from both Indians and British soldiers, slope toward stone walls. Giant copper beech trees dot the landscape, looking like purple circus tents.

John Rousmaniere is a historian who's recently published a gorgeous book on the Evergreens called "Green Oasis in Brooklyn." He tells us about the cemetery's designer.

Mr. JOHN ROUSMANIERE (Historian; Author, "Green Oasis in Brooklyn: The Evergreens Cemetery 1849-2008"): Andrew Jackson Downing really invented landscape architecture in this country in the 1840s, phenomenally successful not only in landscaping but in his influence in architecture.

I liken him to Martha Stewart in his influence in convincing people that there was a practical, yet stylish way of country living that they should adapt. And he once said that a good landscape is like a green oasis in a city. It's a place where you go for rest and relaxation and connection with real values.

LYDEN: Real values, which in the mid-19th century included honoring the dead as they slept in a bucolic setting.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: Rousmaniere leads us to one of the most majestic copper beeches with entwined, massive trunks, overlooking the grave of Thomas Greene Wiggins, Blind Tom.

Mr. ROUSMANIERE: He was a slave, he was blind, and he seems to have been autistic, and he was a natural genius at the piano. He'd imitate the sounds of the wind in the trees, for example, or the wind on water.

(Soundbite of music)

And he immediately as a boy had a following, and his owner exploited him both as a slave and then, during the Civil War, playing for soldiers, and then after the war never got around to telling Tom that he was free until a relative, I think it was a daughter-in-law, took him and brought him up to Hoboken, New Jersey. He spent his last days in Hoboken.

Much of his music was transcribed onto sheet music and has been rediscovered recently, and the pianist who has made an album of some of his songs arranged to have this stone put up.

(Soundbite of music)

LYDEN: The pianist is John Davis(ph). On the day the headstone was erected, he put a grand piano under the tree and invited Blind Tom's relations to a concert. They drove all the way up from down South and heard their great uncle's music performed right there in the Evergreens.

(Soundbite of music)

His tombstone reads: Music inspires comfort and is the bond throughout our lifetime. And at the next grave Danny brings us to, comfort is necessary.

So this is the gravestone inscription for Yusef Hawkins. It says: It is through the struggle in life that caused change. Yusef K. Hawkins, 1973-1989, our baby.

Yusef Hawkins was 16 when he was murdered by a mob of white boys who chased him on August 23rd, 1989. It was an ugly, awful time.

Hawkins had gone to inquire about a car for sale with some friends, all of them black, to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. His killers said they thought he came about a white girl. His murder instantly sparked outrage.

Reverend AL SHARPTON: When young, black children keep getting buried, and young, white children keep feeling justified, there's something that we're not teaching our children.

Mr. DADDARIO: I can tell you about what it was like being here at the time of - when he was interned. Pretty much this whole entire cemetery, I'd say over 1,000 people showed up. It was - this road was blocked off, and this road here was blocked off. Reverend Al Sharpton stood here and made a speech. It was a very emotional and very, very disturbing - there was a lot of tension at that time when this happened.

LYDEN: Hawkins was only the latest fatality in a series of racial killings in Brooklyn and Queens in the 1980s. Now his grave is as quiet as any in the cemetery.

Mr. DADDARIO: The people that have two or three graves down do take care of it, and they do sit here and, you know, they actually set up little beach chairs, and they have like - they spend the day here, and there are all flowers that are planted here. But I never really see that many people come here other than the people that have relatives buried already here on this line.

LYDEN: Whether someone died 15 months, 15 years or 150 years ago, Danny cares for their graves with the same feeling of intimacy. He can scuff aside the mown grass and reveal the name of an old vaudevillian. He tends to the grave of a groundskeeper, a former colleague who committed suicide here. The connections to the gravesites are personal and compelling. It's why certain people are drawn to visit Little Winnie(ph).

Mr. DADDARIO: Little Winnie was a 3-year-old girl, and she died of pneumonia around the 1880s, I believe. I've got to look at her internment card, but what's really interesting is her pail. If you look…

LYDEN: Can I just describe? This is a little Victorian child with a little bonnet tied under her chin. She's smiling, quite lifelike, especially for statues of those days. She's only about a two-foot-high statue. She's holding a little pail.

Mr. DADDARIO: Right. All right, the thing about it is that it's what people put in her pail is pennies. They make wishes.

LYDEN: Remember, Danny's father got him the job at the cemetery 30 years ago, and back then, they'd leave work together every day at around 3:30 in the afternoon.

Mr. DADDARIO: And my father would always stop and say hold on a minute, and he'd reach in his pocket, pull out a couple of pennies and put them in Winnie's pail, and he would stand here for a couple of seconds and leave, and he goes - you always got to - when you always see Winnie, you've always got to drop a penny in her pail.

The funny thing is that since my father has retired, I am doing it. I had asked my father this just a few years ago, after he had retired: How did that come about? He goes: let me tell you something. That has always been. If you see Winnie's grave, then one of the things you had to do was drop money in her pail, but it's just how things like that in the cemetery have been passed on over 100 years.

She passed in the late-1880s, and since that time, all the foremen, on a regular basis, have come, and it's been handed down to my father. Now I'm doing it. Sooner or later, I'm going to get my brother to do it.

That's what the caretaking is, he says, we take care of our loved ones while they're alive. Donato Daddario will take care of them after they're gone, and you couldn't ask for better commemoration than in this green oasis in Brooklyn, the Evergreens Cemetery.

(Soundbite of song, "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY (Singer): (Singing) Please don't talk about me when I'm gone though our friendships ceases from now on. And listen, if you can't say anything real nice, it's better not to talk at all, that's my advice. We're parting, you go your way… Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.