15 min read

Tombstones Around Socrates Sculpture Park in Astoria, Queens

Why are there tombstones around Socrates Sculpture Park? A look at a riverside New York City park surrounded by a wall of tombstones.

It seems that very few people have asked this question, at least on the internet, and there are no obvious answers. There is, however, a fascinating history behind this little park, as well as a whole host of possibilities for how this site came by its morbid gravestone wall.

Highlights include:
• The ultimate NYC villain: real estate developers
• A forgotten creek
• Queens’ penchant for illegal dumping grounds
• Two sculptors’ dreams of creating an open-air gallery

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Episode Script

DISCLAIMER: I’m providing this version of the script for accessibility purposes. It hasn’t been proofread, so please excuse typos. There are also some things that may differ between the final episode and this draft script. Please treat the episode audio as the final product. 

Socrates Sculpture Park

  • I was originally going to talk about one and a half hidden cemeteries this week, but as you know, I have a tendency to go down a wormhole and my notes for this episode became two episode’s worth. So today let’s talk about that half cemetery.
  • There’s a beautiful park called the Socrates Sculpture Park, which is at Hallet’s Cove on the Queens waterfront, right across from the lighthouse at Roosevelt Island.
    • Before it was a park, it was an illegal dumping ground, and before that, the Sunswick Creek flowed there, before it was filled in.
  • I’ve mentioned this park before, both here and on the show’s instagram. It’s one of my favorite places in NYC. It isn’t really near the subway, and it’s in Queens which people from other boroughs don’t come to super often unless they’re visiting someone here. But it’s a real hidden gem with a fascinating history; it’s this unbelievably beautiful waterfront park that is also an open-air art museum.
  • But the reason why I’m talking about this park is it has a stone wall around it, and some of the stones in the wall are very obviously grave markers.
  • No one seems to know the real story behind it, and as far as I can tell, only one other person on the internet is trying to figure out this mystery. Later on, I want to talk about my original theories about the tombstones, and this other person’s theories, but before we get to that, I want to talk a bit about the park’s history, since digging into the history of the park is going to be the key to figuring this out. Assuming I’m ever able to figure this out, which we’ll see.
  • I talk about this area of NYC very often, and it’s definitely an important area. For example, my city council representative, Costa Constantinides, has been doing a lot of work to try to improve the waterfront, including this part of the waterfront. Three of NYC’s largest housing projects are within about a mile of Socrates Sculpture Park, so that’s a lot of people who stand to have their quality of life improved if the waterfront is improved, whether it’s reducing the pollution from power plants–which I’ll talk about a bit more next week–or cleaning up the ruins of abandoned industrial projects. For example, in October 2020, he worked to get funding to, to read from an article in qns.com, “finally remove debris and trash, restore the riverbank’s ecology, and take down a decaying pier known as the ‘radio tower.’ . . . Built almost 70 years ago but long closed to the public due to its rotting condition, the radio tower embodies how physically and emotionally cut off western Queens residents are from their side of the East River.”
    • One things you have to understand about Queens is that EVERYWHERE can and will be an illegal dumping down for industrial and household garbage if it can be. For example, when I lived in Woodside, I lived right next to the viaduct that connects  to the Hell Gate bridge, which meant I had to cross under one of three viaduct arches every day to get to the subway. Two of the three of those arches would be FULL of garbages, from cast-off mattresses and strollers, to bags of trash and car parts, and other unidentified stuff.
    • This may seem like a non-sequitir, but the dumping grounds of Queens are a vital part of this story.
    • Basically, in between Socrates Sculpture Park and the Astoria houses, a housing project, there’s this big, broken-down pier that looks so decrepit that it leads people to consider it a dumping ground.
    • To read another quote from my city council member:

“It’s just been a symbol of how Astoria Houses has been continually forgotten. This is more than just restoring the wetlands and removing the dock — this signals that we’re not going to leave broken down infrastructure in their backyard. It’s time to treat them with the respect they deserve.”

  • I went through the NYT archives looking for clues to the tombstone mystery, and found a number of very condescending articles from the 1980s and 1990s about Socrates Sculpture Park. They didn’t answer the mystery I’m trying to solve here, though there are a few hints, but I think they give a nice history of the park so wanted to read some articles about the park here.
  • Before I get to the articles from the 80s and 90s, I want to start with a great 2016 article from urbanomnibus.net that talks about the park’s history. The big thing I’ve been looking at for this research is any article that talks about what the site was like before the park existed, the construction of the park or its walls, or anything they found when cleaning up the site to make it a park. So let’s get into this article:
    • When di Suvero, other artists, and nearby residents launched the Socrates project atop a former marine terminal on Hallet’s Cove, the neighborhood was quite different. Di Suvero recently described the Astoria of the 80s to the Times: there was a popular carjacking spot just up the road, and di Suvero was mugged by one of the park’s own maintenance employees at the door of his studio down the street.[4] Like many city neighborhoods targeted by artists priced out of Manhattan, this part of Astoria was far poorer and less safe than today. Nor did it immediately gentrify with the onset of artistic activity.
    • Occupying the former marshland around the mouth of the tidal Sunswick Creek, which had been progressively filled beginning in the late 19th century, the terminal was still receiving barges in the early 1950s.[5] Like many vacant waterfront sites across the city during the 1970s and 1980s, the future park was used for illegal dumping and other surreptitious activity. It was just the kind of site that appealed to di Suvero. The former Chicago steelworker moved into a studio in a former waterfront brick handling shed just down the street in 1980, and was eyeing the open-air space to construct and display large-scale metal sculptures, some of which required the use of a construction crane. Working with the Athena Foundation, which he founded nine years earlier to support artistic endeavor in the city, di Suvero raised $200,000 for the park’s construction and negotiated a five-year lease on the property with its owner, the Department of Ports and Terminals, for a dollar a year.
    • Straddling Broadway and extending north and south along Vernon Boulevard, this section of Astoria was far from New York’s downtown art scene and nearly a mile from the nearest subway station. By the 1980s, the area was a jumble of dilapidated piers, old factory buildings, warehouses, storage sheds, auto repair shops, and two- and three-story residential walkups, anchored by two public housing projects.[7] One of the area’s largest industrial employers, the Sohmer and Company Piano Factory, was shuttered in 1982 (the 96-year-old building was converted to residential condominiums beginning in 2007). Yet with di Suvero’s studio to the north and Isamu Noguchi’s studio, now the site of the Noguchi Museum, just to the south, Socrates was poised to become the center of a small but growing arts community.
    • Di Suvero enlisted dozens of neighborhood volunteers and their children to contribute to his broad vision of local engagement. Throughout 1986, the team of artists and residents used their own sweat equity to remake the barren, debris-strewn site into a welcoming, if still raw, four-acre park with winding gravel paths and beds of wildflowers built around the installations of the inaugural exhibition.[8] Concrete piers and seawalls were still exposed throughout the landfill; artworks were placed on top of them.
  •  New York Times, 27 Aug. 1986.:
    • “The largest outdoor space in New York City for the exhibition of monumental works of sculpture will open next month in Long Island City, Queens, where Mark di Suvero and Isamu Noguchi have collaborated in building a landscaped sculpture park on an abandoned riverside lot.
    • Once a garbage-strewn landfill across from the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, the sculpture park is being landscaped by teams of local youths in preparation for its opening. Called the Socrates Sculpture Park, the four-acre site will contain winding gravel paths, wildflower gardens, views of the East River and scores of sculptures by contemporary artists.”
  • From the New York Times, 12 Oct. 1986.:
    • “The site is impressive. It is on the East River, facing the northern tip of Roosevelt Island, just south of Hell Gate, the point of intersection between the Harlem and East Rivers where treacherous currents decide periodically to wrestle unsuspecting boats to their death. The site was formerly the home of a marine terminal. The slip was filled in around 15 years ago, but some of the concrete pedestals used for moorings remain, and they are now bases for sculpture. Whatever happens on this plot of land will be engaged by the Manhattan skyline and the East River, which that are so much a part of American myth.
    • According to a brochure for the sculpture park, the project is ”dedicated to Socrates in his search for the truth,” The driving force behind the park is the sculptor Mark di Suvero, whose large steel works feed off architecture, and who has a rare capacity to mobilize people from different walks of life. He had had his eye on what was then four acres of garbage and rubble since 1980 when he took over a former brickhandling facility down the road and began transforming it into a waterside studio. Di Suvero was instrumental in leasing the land from the city for five years, and in raising the $200,000 that has been spent so far in clearing and landscaping the grounds and assembling the first show. The park is still raw, and there is no sense yet of a clear guiding vision, but its very existence is remarkable, and its potential is almost unlimited.
    • ”When the lease runs out the city is considering the possibility of turning two acres of the park into luxury housing,” di Suvero said. ”We would like to see all four acres remain a sculpture park indefinitely.””
  • I found a New York Times article from May 26 1994, when the Sculpture Park was officially made a park.
    • “One man’s dream to clean up a garbage dump and build a park — a sculpture garden beside the East River with the jagged skyline of Manhattan a distant backdrop — officially became a reality yesterday.
    • Since Mark di Suvero first wondered a decade ago whether there was a better way to make use of the littered lot beside his Queens studio, hundreds of his neighbors have worked tirelessly to help him create Socrates Sculpture Park, already a powerful draw for art aficionados from the city and beyond. Yesterday, it was formally dedicated as a city park, the first major addition to the park system in more than a decade.
    • With the pull of a cord and the falling away of a blue drape, the Parks and Recreation Commissioner, Henry J. Stern, declared that the 4.5-acre former wasteland had been reclaimed as part of the city’s green space. . . .
    • Socrates Sculpture Park, named for the philosopher, was conceived by Mr. di Suvero after he set up his studio in an old brick factory amid the warehouses and transmission shops along Vernon Boulevard. The site, facing the northern tip of Roosevelt Island and just south of Hell Gate, the treacherous juncture of the Harlem and East Rivers, had once been a marine terminal. The slip was filled in about 20 years ago, but some of the concrete moorings remained; ideal pedestals for sculpture, in Mr. di Suvero’s mind’s eye.
  • New York Times, 11 Aug. 1997.
    • “In the 1980’s, the area was a prime site of illegal dumping; there was no fence, and broken steel and abandoned cars defined the landscape. Mr. di Suvero and Mr. Noguchi looked at the garbage and envisioned a protected park that could provide an ”ongoing experimental narrative” in the medium of sculpture.
    • The city agreed to let the sculptors use the land, but only temporarily. Hundreds of neighborhood volunteers pitched in to clean out truckloads of trash. After a year’s work, the first exhibit was held in 1986. Since then, there have been two shows of 20 or so pieces a year. Children’s education classes, lectures, tours and concerts have also been offered.
    • Mr. di Suvero and others continued to push for more permanent protection for the park, because developers for years had hungered to build luxury housing there but had been defeated by real estate recessions, lack of local amenities, distant transportation and other problems.”
  • Developers have continued to buy up land all around it and build hideous new construction that costs about double what a normal apartment in Astoria would cost.
  • According to a youtube video with 7 views made by Mark Thomas, In the 1970s or 1980s, St. Michael’s Cemetery was in disrepair, overgrown, didn’t even look like a cemetery. New management cleaned it up, then got rid of a bunch of tombstones and then put 6 feet of dirt on top of them, so they could keep burying people there. The people buried there hadn’t paid for perpetual care so they said it was within their rights to cover their graves. Then they had to do something with the tombstones, so they put them in the dumping ground that became Socrates Sculpture Park, so they used that to build the park’s wall. Mark Thomas says that he wants to find out whose tombstones they are, and then build a plaque so the people aren’t forgotten.
  • The tombstones consist mostly of square blocks with letters of them, there are some taller stones that have “lot” written on them, and others have numbers (usually in the 2,000s
  • He also makes the interesting comment that some of the stones are sinking
  • He guesses that the Tombstones may be from Mount Zion, but doesn’t really elaborate on why
  • However, people have said that the tombstones weren’t from St. Michael’s, b/c St. Michael’s has plots, not lots, and their numbering is different. So the mystery is
  • “Gorges” is the only full name on the stone, and there’s one stone that says “Ste” as if it’s part of someone’s name.
  • I’d always assumed they were cast off stones from maybe a nearby stone mason that may have been donated to the park
    • I found a 30th anniversary book called Socrates Sculpture Park: Thirty years, that had a bit more info about what sort of stuff the former marine terminal was used for, which could maaaaaybe support my theory:
    • “Formerly a port for offloading stone and sand, this neglected plot of landfill accumulated what the shipping terminal left behind, whether construction debris or collapsed piers.”
  • Or what if there’s another cemetery they’re from that doesn’t exist anymore?
  • I wrote to the park about a year ago and didn’t hear back, but supposedly the staff doesn’t know the story.

Sources consulted RE: tombstones around Socrates Sculpture Park

Books

Articles

  • Martin, Douglas. “Philosophies Differ on Future of Socrates Sculpture Park.” New York Times, 11 Aug. 1997. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A150303177/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=d82bdc7a. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • “City Art Panel Names Nine Design Winners.” New York Times, 3 May 1986. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A176384041/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=5dabafca. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Mcgill, Douglas C. “A SCULPTURE PARK GROWS IN QUEENS.” New York Times, 27 Aug. 1986. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A176333799/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=a0136bbb. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Brenson, Michael. “GALLERY VIEW; Di Suvero’s Dream of a Sculpture Park Grows in Queens.” New York Times, 12 Oct. 1986. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A176302046/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=0aabdabf. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Yarrow, Andrew L. “14 REASONS WHY NEW YORK IS NEW.” New York Times, 3 Oct. 1986. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A176298273/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=a5bbadd3. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Brenson, Michael. “City as Sculpture Garden: Seeing the New and Daring.” New York Times, 17 July 1987. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A176103620/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=77574bf2. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Yarrow, Andrew L. “Art and History With River View Of Manhattan.” New York Times, 15 July 1988. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175911795/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=a65aa516. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Brenson, Michael. “Bold Sculpture for Wide-Open Spaces.” New York Times, 21 July 1989. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175735611/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=2bc0b1b4. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Brown, Frank. “If You’re Thinking of Living in: Astoria.” New York Times, 27 Aug. 1989. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175747944/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=b9301eb6. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Brenson, Michael. “Sculpture for Troubled Places.” New York Times, 15 Oct. 1989. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175778280/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=56b200a3. Accessed 6 Mar. 2021.
  • Shepard, Richard F. “Astoria, a Greek Isle in the New York City Sea.” New York Times, 15 Nov. 1991. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175384893/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=17dd4729. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  • Brenson, Michael. “Cityful of Sculpture Under the Sky.” New York Times, 26 July 1991. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175288866/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=2e3e11c9. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  • “POSTINGS: Free Guide to Institutions; Arts in Long Island City.” New York Times, 20 Dec. 1992. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A175005016/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=ac7cf315. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  • Hevesi, Dennis. “Sculpture Garden Rises in a New Patch of Green; The Latest Addition to New York City’s Park System, Named for a Philosopher.” New York Times, 26 May 1994. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A174435347/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=60c60ec9. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  • Holloway, Lynette. “NEIGHBORHOOD REPORT: LONG ISLAND CITY; Trailblazing for Urban Hikers.” New York Times, 19 June 1994. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A174445989/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=35863190. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.
  • Steel, Tanya Wenman. “Gingham Checks and Thou.” New York Times, 22 June 1994. New York State Newspapers, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A174443349/SPN.SP01?u=nypl&sid=SPN.SP01&xid=d1ea8f96. Accessed 7 Mar. 2021.

Websites

  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVfg3Jr1Rps
  • https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HrBV3gRyiMU
  • https://wsbj.com/sorabji/2017/02/18/disintegrating-into-dirt-inverted-tombstones-obscure-memories.html
  • https://wsbj.com/sorabji/2020/11/02/the-mystery-of-socrates-sculpture-parks-wall-of-tombstones.html
  • https://untappedcities.com/2016/11/29/top-10-secrets-of-socrates-sculpture-park-in-nyc/?displayall=true
  • https://urbanomnibus.net/2016/12/socrates-30/
  • https://qns.com/2020/10/work-to-begin-on-hallets-cove-waterfront-this-winter/
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costa_Constantinideshttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socrates_Sculpture_Park
  • https://www.nycgovparks.org/parks/socrates-sculpture-parkhttps://6tocelebrate.org/site/socrates-sculpture-park/
  • https://www.nytimes.com/1986/10/12/arts/gallery-view-di-suvero-s-dream-of-a-sculpture-park-grows-in-queens.html
  • https://issuu.com/socratessculpturepark/docs/socrates_30th_anniversary_book_1610
  • https://www.msn.com/en-us/money/realestate/337-affordable-apartments-up-for-grabs-in-lics-5-pointz-towers/ar-BB1e1m7b
  • https://www.hallettspoint.com/#availabilities
  • https://socratessculpturepark.org/artist/andrea-solstad/
  • https://socratessculpturepark.org/artist/sandy-williams-iv/
  • https://socratessculpturepark.org/artist/jeffrey-gibson/
  • https://socratessculpturepark.org/artist/paul-ramirez-jonas/

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