The cherry blossoms are in full-bloom, drawing New York’s nature lovers to parks all over the city to admire the delicate, ephemeral blossoms. Many of the city’s cherry blossom viewing festivals, including the reigning favorite–the Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s long-running Sakura Matsuri festival–have been put on hold this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But a new contender has emerged, and it offers sakura enthusiasts a chance to enjoy the floating pink petals in an unusual place: Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery. According to Harry Weil, Green-Wood’s director of public programming, the plans to establish an alternative cherry blossom festival has been in the works for a while.
“It’s something that we have been dreaming about, and 2021 seemed like the right year to inaugurate it,” Weil said. “And the weather conspired in our favor, as did the flowering trees.”
A line of festival-goers wrapped around the block on Tuesday evening, waiting to be let in through Green-Wood’s spectacular brownstone arch and onto the grounds for the cemetery’s first annual Hanami Festival.
Visitors meandered the cemetery’s winding pathways, taking pictures of the blooming cherry trees and enjoying the warm breeze that sent pink petals swirling amongst the headstones. Along the walk, festival-goers encountered tables filled with Japanese candy and snacks curated by Japan Village, and musicians playing Japanese folk songs and Japanese-influenced jazz.
Local musician Zac Zinger played Japanese pop music on the shakuhatchi, a traditional wooden flute, underneath a blooming cherry blossom tree on the Battle Avenue pathway. His bandmates, guitarist Hidayat Honari and bassist Yuka Tadano, accompanied him as he played Japanese folk songs like “Sukiyaki” for listeners lounging on the cemetery’s green lawns.
Two such listeners were Brooklyn locals, Christy Jones and Jen Green, who dressed up in spring colors and cherry blossom flower crowns for the occasion. The pair were drawn to the Hanami festival to see the blooms, as well as for the opportunity to explore Green-Wood.
“We’re also just Japan fans,” said Green.
For Jones, Green-Wood has offered a source of respite during the pandemic, a place to stroll away from the crowds at Prospect Park and other local popular Brooklyn hangouts.
“There’s always something in bloom here,” said Jones. “I come here like three times a week.”
Green-Wood’s push to stay open during the pandemic is also what brought volunteer Julie Schwartzberg to the Hanami Festival. A longtime Green-Wood member, Schwartzberg became a volunteer last March when the cemetery contended with enormous crowds seeking outdoor recreation at the start of the pandemic. She started volunteering to help Green-Wood maintain its tranquil atmosphere, and stayed on when she found she enjoyed Green-Wood’s public programming, including musical performances and historical tours of the grounds.
“It’s a gorgeous place, and they do wonderful things here,” said Schwartzberg.
For Harry Weil, Green-Wood’s director of public programs, creating a welcoming environment is the cemetery’s ultimate goal. “We want to make Green-Wood as open and accessible to as many people as possible,” Weil said.
Green-Wood’s new app, which provides an interactive map of the cemetery’s sprawling 478-acre grounds has been one step in that direction. The app also helps visitors to identify the cemetery’s flora and fauna, including multiple species of cherry blossom trees and a variety of birds, including Green-Wood’s resident monk parrots and hawks.
As Green-Wood Cemetery’s Hanami Festival came to an end, sunset drenched New York’s skyline in a pink and orange glow. The Hanami festival may be over, but the cherry blossoms are still in bloom at Green-Wood. The cemetery’s winding pathways and rolling hills are the perfect place for visitors to welcome spring and contemplate the lovely, ephemeral nature of the petals–and, if the cemetery inspires you– of life itself.