Since we began covering Hart Island the island has gotten more and more attention – and also a small amount of better access for the public. The general public has been able to visit a small area with a gazebo and memorial once a month. And in 2015, in a response to a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York City Department of Correction (which has jurisdiction over the island) also started a monthly visiting day for people who have a loved one buried on the island where the family members are able to visit the actual burial sites. There are also occasional media tours (which is how Untapped Cities was able to visit last week).
But it’s still a very onerous process – one a lot closer to visiting a prison than a cemetery. Visitors have to be escorted by a Department of Correction employee at all times. Visiting is limited to one day a month, and the bureaucracy includes filling out a “grave visit request” form, registering with the Department of Correction “at least 12 business days before the scheduled visit,” signing a liability waiver, checking electronic devices like cell phones, and getting pre-approved permission to leave mementos beyond six categories allowed (“flowers without vases, small stuffed animals, photographs, prayer cards, small flags, and blankets”).
But this may be changing. Former New York City Councilmember Elizabeth Crowley first proposed transferring Hart Island from the jurisdiction of the NYC Department of Corrections to the Parks Department in 2012, and current Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez recently reintroduced the bill along with another one to provide expanded ferry service. Here are five reasons why truly opening up Hart Island to the public is a good idea.
1. Hart Island would make a great park
Probably the best argument for transferring ownership to the Parks Department is that the island would make a wonderful park. There’s a shoreline, open space, beautiful views and, in a city where relaxation can be difficult to come by, a very real and tangible sense of peace (although this sense of peace is often interrupted by what sounds like a continual Fourth of July celebration coming from the Rodman Neck firing range in Pelham Bay Park). The island even has its own wildlife. Immediately upon docking at Hart Island we were greeted by an huge osprey nest. Flocks of geese (and goslings!) roamed the island, and we also saw several different species of birds. Corrections officials also talked about seeing raccoons and even occasional deer who had swum over from the mainland.