A Historic New Jersey Cemetery Sits Neglected and Blighted

NEWARK — Every Mother’s Day, Ann Jeffress and her two sisters have come to Woodland Cemetery here to lay a rose at the grave of their mother, Lucy. The visits were never easy, but now they have become traumatic in ways they never imagined. When the women enter the cemetery, they walk hand in hand, clutching sticks to fend off dogs or potential attackers. They poke cautiously through mounds of rubble in search of the spot where their mother was laid to rest.

A once illustrious cemetery where over 80,000 people have been buried, and with a history dating to Newark’s heyday in the 19th century, Woodland has fallen into a bleak state of disrepair. These days, the cemetery is a blight on a neighborhood striving for renewal, a magnet for crime and garbage.

Woodland’s 37 sloping acres are choked with chest-high weeds. Its gatehouse is crumbling, much of its fence is broken and many headstones have been toppled or vandalized. Lucy Jeffress struggled to raise her family on a housekeeper’s salary — now her gravestone lies cracked on the ground.

Ann Jeffress said that she had called the cemetery’s management repeatedly, but that her entreaties, like those of many other relatives of those buried there, had gone unanswered or unheeded.

“I feel like we were cheated,” Ms. Jeffress, 73, said. “We put our mother there to rest in peace, but instead she was desecrated.”

There have been many calls to revive Woodland, but they have all sputtered. The board that runs Woodland says the privately operated cemetery is grappling with unavoidable financial challenges. But many of those who have grown concerned about Woodland believe otherwise and have filed a formal complaint with a state agency accusing the board of financial mismanagement. They also argue that a board made up entirely of white people from out of town has fallen out of touch with the community it was meant to serve.

Some elected officials blame the State of New Jersey, which, unlike many other states, does not provide financial help for decrepit graveyards.

“It’s not a direct city responsibility. It’s not a direct county responsibility; it’s not a direct state responsibility, so everyone lets themselves off the hook,” said State Senator Ronald L. Rice, a Democrat whose district includes Woodland. “And, meanwhile, the cemetery is a wreck that runs down the entire neighborhood.”

Judy Welshons, the executive director of the nonprofit New Jersey Cemetery Association, estimated that there were as many as 100 financially or physically distressed cemeteries in the state. “But none are quite as big or as legendary as Woodland,” she said. “This is a disturbing and unusual case.”

The trajectory of Woodland largely mirrors the history of Newark itself. The city was in the midst of an industrial boom when the cemetery opened in 1855, drawing throngs of European immigrants. Woodland was designed as a garden-style cemetery with rolling hills, winding dirt pathways and a Gothic Revival gatehouse that made the cemetery an unofficial city landmark. In its early years, many of those buried were Germans; over time came immigrants from Ireland, Greece, Italy and Eastern Europe.

African-Americans were also admitted to Woodland, but, as in many cemeteries, their interments were commonly held in a separate section until the 1960s. Woodland’s broader integration coincided with a wave of white flight from Newark, and the cemetery soon catered predominantly to black residents.

Among those buried there is Ike Abrams Quebec, a renowned African-American jazz saxophonist. Woodland also became the final resting place for hundreds of veterans of conflicts stretching from the War of 1812 through the Vietnam War.

But as the social fabric of the city began to fray in the middle of the last century — a combination of deindustrialization, discriminatory lending and racial unrest that culminated in the 1967 riots — Woodland deteriorated as well.

“It became a tough area, and the burials just started dwindling,” said Mary Lish, 65, a retired court clerk who has studied the cemetery’s history. “Soon enough, everyone began to turn a blind eye to the place.”

By the 1980s, Woodland had degenerated into squalor. Amid the fallen headstones and mounds of trash, drug dealers sold their wares, prostitutes solicited clients, homeless people set up camp and stray dogs ran wild.

Murders occur within the cemetery and in the surrounding blocks, a mostly African-American and low-income section of the city’s West Side dotted with modest clapboard houses, not far from the commercial strip of Springfield Avenue. (Only a few weeks ago, a man was found shot to death just outside the cemetery.)

“This is supposed to be a sacred place, and instead it’s one of the worst parts of the city,” said John S. James, a member of the city council.

Officials have long implored the city to help. As early as 1988, records show, the council described “deplorable conditions” at Woodland and sought financing from the mayor, Sharpe James. When those appeals failed, they turned to the state, repeatedly asking the New Jersey Cemetery Board, which regulates cemeteries, to help Woodland.

“It’s in a crisis situation,” Donald Bradley, the council president, wrote in 1997. In 2003, the council even urged the city to sue the state cemetery board for failure to maintain Woodland.

A spokesman for the State Division of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the board, said that the board “cannot comment on the reasons why Woodland has been in disrepair,” and that it did not have the authority to provide aid to cemeteries.

While many states require cemeteries to contribute to a fund for distressed or abandoned graveyards, New Jersey does not. Efforts to establish such a fund have languished in the State Senate.

Without help, the Woodland board says it is trapped in a vicious financial cycle.

“We’re caught in a Catch-22,” said Rosemary Hilbert, the board president. “We can’t tend to the cemetery until we get more money, and we can’t get more money until we tend to the cemetery.

But some critics claim that Woodland’s problems are more insidious. Last year, Karima Jackson, a graduate student at Rutgers University and a lifelong Newark resident, filed a complaint against the cemetery’s board with the Division of Consumer Affairs claiming financial mismanagement, regulatory violations and a lack of transparency.

“The cemetery has been failing our community for decades, and no one has held them accountable,” said Ms. Jackson, 38, whose great-grandfather is buried in Woodland.

Ms. Hilbert denied Ms. Jackson’s assertions, calling her “an agitator with an agenda.” She said the cemetery was steadily moving forward with its own restoration plan.

City officials say there is little they can do since Woodland is run privately.

Ms. Jackson has led a group of local volunteers called Organize Change on weekly cleanups of the cemetery. Ms. Hilbert initially seemed receptive to the effort, but the relationship soured after Ms. Jackson began questioning management of the cemetery and lobbied to become a board member.

The board has not held an annual meeting, as required by the state, since January 2015, and Ms. Jackson said it had refused to consider new members since she and several other community activists submitted applications last year. (The board has scheduled a meeting for late April.)

The activists, all of whom are black residents of Newark, also question why the current six-person Woodland board is made up of white people who do not live in the city. They see their stymied membership efforts as part of a longer history of black exclusion from the Woodland board.

“Any time a black person spoke out, we got the boot,” said Keith Bush, a Newark resident who said he had been kicked off the board after filing a complaint against it. “I hate the race card, but it is what it is.”

Ms. Hilbert acknowledged that there used to be several black people on the board, but rejected any suggestion that there was a racial problem. She said the board intended to add African-American members soon.

“The race card is the last card they play, but it’s not an issue with us,” she said.

After Ms. Jackson submitted her complaint to the state, the situation became more heated, culminating in a fistfight in the cemetery between Warren Vincentz, a Woodland board member, and Horatio Joines, an Organize Change member and Ms. Jackson’s fiancé. Ms. Hilbert stopped allowing the group into the cemetery, though Ms. Jackson has still managed to lead several cleanups.

Though Ms. Jackson filed her initial complaint in February 2016, her claim remains unresolved. The spokesman for the Division of Consumer Affairs would not comment on the complaint.

With no resolution in sight, the families of those buried at Woodland are left frustrated at how a problem they consider so egregious is allowed to fester.

One afternoon last fall, Vera Jones, a bookkeeper from Newark, tried to visit the cemetery to lay flowers at her mother’s grave. The sight of fractured headstones and overgrown weeds was so dismaying that she turned around and drove back home.

“The city? The state?’’ asked Ms. Jones, 52. “No one can do anything?”

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