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Cemetery

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Last week, I showed BQ readers the highlights of my walk down the entire length of Metropolitan Avenue, from the East River waterfront all the way to its eastern end at Jamaica Avenue, with an emphasis on its Queens identity east of Newtown Creek. I only got us as far as 69th Street, just east of the last stop on the M train.

Metropolitan  Avenue is about 13 miles long, end to end, and today’s highlights cover a lot of territory from Middle Village to Forest Hills. If you’re not up to the challenge of walking the whole way, that’s fine: simply take the M to the end of the line and grab the B54 bus heading east, which runs nearly the entire length of the avenue with a detour into The Shops at Atlas Park.

The best way to see a neighborhood, though, is by putting one foot in front of the other; behind the wheel or the handlebars, there are other things to pay attention to, such as cars and traffic regulations.

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In 1928 the New York State Education Department devised an initiative to mark places of historical significance, and over the next four decades, almost 2800 such markers were placed all over the state.

The signs themselves are marvels of design, in my opinion. Most of them feature dark blue backgrounds with gold raised block lettering and trim, though there are variations in color, lettering, and very occasionally shape, just to change it up, I imagine. The state discontinued the series in 1966 after high-speed travel on expressways became the norm.

This flickr page that assembles photos of the markers taken by various photographers illustrates the basic, simple and readable design of these signs. 

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Mount Zion, a Jewish cemetery, occupies about 80 acres in Maspeth near New Calvary Cemetery and the BQE. It was opened in the early 1890s under the auspices of Chevra Bani Sholom and later by the Elmwier Cemetery Association (Elmwier Avenue is a former name of 54th Avenue).

A walk in Mount Zion will produce a surprising and poignant reminder of burial practices long forgotten… the faces of the dead are preserved on some of the tombstones.

In a process known as “enameling,” photographs of the deceased are burned into porcelain (in a process described in detail in John Yang’s book, “Mount Zion: Sepulchral Photographs.”) This was a custom brought to the U.S. by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

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Last Tuesday, which you’ll recall as being one of the first days of tolerable weather in months, I decided to go for a little walk right here in Astoria. My destination was St. Michael’s Cemetery, which is found around a mile from HQ. Happily, there was still snow on the ground despite it being the balmy lower 50s – and happier still – it was somewhat overcast so I didn’t have to struggle to control an over abundance of light striking the reflective snow.

More after the jump…

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I may not have expressly stated it previously, but even though I am able to function in summer, the heat and humidity wears me down to a nub by Labor Day every year; and I don’t feel fully dressed unless I can wear a jacket. Psychoanalyze that any way you wish, but I have always felt more contented and grounded in cool and cold weather. I would be completely ineffectual if forced to reside in equatorial regions or the Pacific.

My neighborhood, Little Neck, in winter can occasionally be as picturesque as any town in the Poconos or the Catskills, though all it lacks is a mountain for actual skiing. Though I don’t mind, because they still talk about that ski trip I took to Hunter, let’s say a few years ago. (I had trouble with the tow line, to give you some idea.)

Originally a Methodist church built in 1867 on gifted land from Bloodgood Cutter (see below), the modest brick and frame building still stands, surrounded by newer additions. It became the nondenominational Community Church of Little Neck in 1925. Then as now the church conducts a Sunday school and holds a strawberry festival in June.

Today, I wandered on the maze of roads south of Northern Boulevard and west of Little Neck Parkway. This land was once owned by Bloodgood Haviland Cutter (1817-1906). Known as the “Bard of Little Neck,”, he was a potato farmer, poet and friend of Mark Twain, who immortalized him as the “Poet Lariat” in Innocents Abroad. Twain poked fun at Cutter as a master of doggerel who annoyed fellow passengers on an excursion to the Holy Land in the travelogue. B.H. Cutter’s grave, marked by a large cross, can be found in the nearby Zion churchyard on Northern Boulevard.

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On a frigid afternoon last week, I found myself at Machpela Cemetery, visiting the grave of perhaps the greatest celebrity of the early 20th century – Harry Houdini. Houdini was a stage magician, an escape artist, a genius promoter, a star of the stage and screen, claimed to be one of the toughest men alive, and he died on Halloween in 1926.

There’s a tremendous amount of drama that revolves around Houdini’s grave, which the New York Times has reported on in this 2008 piece, and in this 2011 one. There’s little point in repeating the oft told tale, or the conflicts surrounding the upkeep of the monument as I’d just be dancing around other people’s reporting. Instead, I’d ask you to click through to the links above for the whole story (the links will open in new windows), and I’ll be waiting here for you when you’re done.

More after the jump…

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There it sits at Metropolitan Avenue and 69th Street in Middle Village, across the street from All-Faiths Cemetery, a showcase of stone carving with the name Frank T. Lang positioned prominently on the chamfered corner, guarded by prehensile tailed creatures of no known genus or species. Its proximity to the cemetery is no accident, as Lang was a prominent stone carver as well as mausoleum architect in the early 20th century and his work can be found both in All-Faiths and in nearby St. John’s Cemetery.