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.
2. It would also be a better cemetery
As councilman Rodriguez pointed out, New York is the only city where the public cemetery is run by the Department of Correction. In virtually every other cemetery in the country people can visit their loved ones without an extensive and intrusive coordination with the city agency that runs the prison system. Regular public access would let people visit their loved ones they way the rest of us get to – unescorted and on our own terms. On our previous regular visit to Hart Island (by going through the public process), the corrections officers were polite and respectful, offering information about Hart Island to visitors, but the security around access and low frequency of possible visits makes the space difficult to visit for the general public, let alone those who hope to pay respects to their loved ones.
The Hart Island project maintains an online database of people buried since 1980 and “assists families and individuals with limited resources in accessing public burial records and information concerning burial procedures on Hart Island, and increases public awareness of the history of Hart Island, the Potter’s Field in New York City through engaged storytelling.”
3. Hart Island could be more ecumenical
Given the current and past diversity of New York, it’s certain that there’s a great many religious traditions represented among the people buried on Hart Island. For the most part there’s little religious symbolism (grave sites are marked with a plain white marker, with each marker indicating the burial site of 150 people), but the symbols that exist are exclusively Christian ones. Right now people visiting loved ones can bring a clergy member of their choice, but the dead who receive visitors represent a very small portion of the between 750,000 and a million people buried on Hart Island. With better access would come more people of more faiths, and likely more attention paid to the religious traditions of the non-Christians who are buried on the island.
This isn’t to say the Department of Correction isn’t supportive of religious diversity when it comes to Hart Island. They are “very open” to having more services of different religions, and in fact one of the corrections officers who accompanied us on our trip had the Coexist symbol tattooed on his arm.
4. Hart Island is Historic
People have been buried on Hart Island since shortly after the Civil War – almost as long as historic cemeteries like Woodlawn in the Bronx or Green-Wood in Brooklyn have been active. And a lot has happened on Hart Island besides being a burial ground – it’s housed asylums, hospitals, reformatories, jails, and military bases among other things. Jacob Riis took his first photos on Hart Island, and the grave of the first child to die of AIDS is also located there. And there’s several old buildings on the island, including a chapel and a 106-year-old dynamo room. Hart Island – like Fort Tilden in the Rockaways – also contains a series of abandoned Nike Missile silos from the Cold War.
These buildings would need to be secured, if not totally rehabilitated, in order to have more open access to the island. Councilman Rodriguez named a 10 million dollar investment as what he was looking for.
5. People Want to Go to Hart Island
People certainly want to visit the island. In 2017 the legal settlement was modified to allow more visitors because of the demand. There weren’t many signs of unauthorized visitors on the island (although there were a few graffiti tags) when we visited, but intrepid photographers have managed to find their way on from time to time and, most tragically, in 2003 four teenagers from nearby City Island drowned in what was likely an attempt to visit the island. Instead of making visiting Hart Island either a dangerous adventure – one which only a few people are likely to even attempt – or a long and onerous process, having truly open access would mean many more people can visit, and in a safe way.
Stay tuned for our full photo essay from our visit to Hart Island last week. Next, check out the 10 NYC Parks Spots that are Closed Off to the Public and discover the Top 10 Secrets of Hart Island.