Friday, November 26, 2010

Abandoned Cemetery ... or Just Repurposed?

People tell me I’m nuts for banging around abandoned cemeteries in Camden, New Jersey. “It’s dangerous!” they say. Well, for the record, Camden no longer tops the FBI’s list of “Most dangerous cities in the U.S.” In a report issued this week, the Associated Press tells us that for violent crime, St. Louis, in fact, holds the No.1 spot. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Camden only drops to No.2! So off I went.

Prior to visiting Camden’s Johnson Cemetery, I knew nothing about it apart from what a filmmaker told me a few weeks ago. I met him (of course) in an abandoned Camden Cemetery (see "Scary Cemeteries" link at end) where he was getting background footage for a proposed documentary on the restoration of the abandoned Johnson Cemetery, which he referred to as, “’Needle Park’ …on the other side of town.” While pretty much ANY part of Camden is ‘the other side of town,’ the maps show it to be literally that--bordering Pennsauken, at 38th and Federal Streets. It’s in a mixed commercial/residential district, replete with Dominican grocers, Mexican Taquerias, and rescue missions—all tied together by a seemingly endless line of chrome wheel-intensive vehicles. This is all just up the road from Petty’s Island, the notorious pirate hangout in the Delaware River (Ahrrr, from the times before yer slots parlors existed, matey).

I was surprised to find that Johnson Cemetery isn’t so much abandoned, as repurposed! It’s a city park, for God’s sake! -- a park with benches, trees, and paved walkways. Lest I paint too pristine a picture,  there were empty liquor bottles all over, general scattered trash, and flattened cardboard beer boxes on the benches where the homeless sleep. You would never know it was a cemetery if you didn’t set foot inside (though you’d really have no reason to do so unless you needed to score some drugs). The park is about the size of a football field and the grass seems to be kept mowed. There’s a quirky weatherbeaten sign behind some trees that says “Johnson Cemetery Park.” I called the phone number, and it was disconnected.

I had actually driven around the cemetery twice, while scrutinizing the map to see how I could possibly be missing it—but all I saw was this field sandwiched between Federal Street and the projects. I ended up ditching my car a block away near “Modern Liquors” to get a better lay of the land. As I walked down the block, I asked a guy whose house bordered the park if he knew of a cemetery nearby. With a snaggletoothed smile he looked up from his old Buick’s head gasket repair and said, “Not many people know that park used to be a cemetery.” I thanked him and walked on.

If you’ve been around old graveyards, you know the telltale signs—marble pedestal bases sticking out of the grass on the perimeter, fragments of rusty fence embedded in old trees. This is about all I saw at Johnson, except for a couple guys in hoodies sitting on a bench close to the main road. Periodically, someone would wander up to the pair, and after some light conversation a trip would be made to the blue conversion van parked on the street nearby. An interaction of some sort would occur between the visitor and a woman in the passenger seat. The visitor/customer would then walk away. At one point I walked up to one of the dealers and asked if he knew of any gravestones in the place. He was a bit put off (I had a camera, remember), but pointed off in a direction away from the action, at what appeared to be paving stones in the grass. Upon closer inspection, they turned out to be HEADSTONES! Flush with the ground, these randomly scattered stones were the only definite evidence of Johnson Park having been an actual cemetery.

Kicking my way through the empty liquor bottles and beer cans, I found about 24 flat stones in all, mostly in the northeast section of the park. This being a windy day, the fallen autumn leaves were blowing around. Oddly, none would accumulate on any of the headstones. It was almost as if they were continually being swept away, or the stones themselves proudly did not want to be covered and forgotten. Who would even know these graves were here, if they didn’t actually go looking for them? Shouldn’t there be a little more reverence? A little less squalor?

I wondered about the history of the place, and if the stones had originally been upright then laid to rest when they built the “park.” Did they just landscape over the interred bodies as they did with Capitolo playground (formerly Lafayette Cemetery) in South Philly (near Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteak emporiums)? Or did they do what Philadelphia’s Temple University did in the 1950’s—dig up Monument Cemetery (the city’s second rural cemetery) and build a parking lot. According to writer and historian Thomas H. Keels, “Thousands of those interred there were transferred to a mass grave in the suburbs. Their monuments were dumped into the Delaware River, where they are still visible today.”  Keels says we seem to have as many ways of dishonoring our ancestors as we do of honoring them.

Beneath the newspapers and empty gin bottles, the Johnson Cemetery headstones provide glimpses of life in the past lane, specifically the American Civil War. On some of the stones, you can just make out the engraved words “U.S. COLRD TROOPS” and “COLORD VOLS,” along with names of U.S. Navy warships on which at least two of the deceased served—the U.S.S. Ticonderoga and the U.S.S. Princeton. From what little I could find out about Johnson Cemetery, most of its hundred or so inhabitants are African-American Civil War veterans--people who made our history what it is. At one point, I noticed the only standing stone in the cemetery (above, with laundromat in background), what I initially took to be a bollard. It’s an unusual piece about 2 feet high and a foot square, engraved with the name of Jacob Johnson, who, along with Anthony Collings and Luke Derrockson were the original owners of the cemetery (according to a deed dated 1854).

Walking back to my car, I passed the guy working on his Buick. After I thanked him for his help, he offered,”They said they moved all the graves to [one of the cemeteries in the nearby town of] Mount Ephraim. I don’t believe it. I was digging in my back yard some years ago to put up a fence and I dug up grave markers and wooden coffin parts.” As I drove away, the musician Chuck Prophet was singing on the stereo, “When you barely exist….who’s gonna miss you when you’re gone?”


Scary Cemeteries of Camden 

Rest in Pieces: Philadelphia's Lost Cemeteries

Camden Crime 2009

AP Report on 2010 Crime Statistics

Thomas H. Keels' Books: