In the latest short film released by Unforgotten Films, you might be watching some of the final pieces of footage of the abandoned buildings on Hart Island. Eighteen of the crumbling historic structures were slated for demolition in an emergency order issued by the Department of Buildings in 2021. Since then, the neglected structures have continued to decay as they await the blow of the wrecking ball.
Hart Island has been used as a public burial ground since 1869. Civil War veterans, individuals who died of AIDS-related illness, and COVID-19 victims are just a few of the types of people who have been interred there. In 2021, the NYC Department of Parks & Recreation and the NYC Department of Social Services took over management of the island from the NYC Department of Corrections. Before the transfer, inmates of Rikers Island dug the graves. In addition to over a dozen buildings built between the early 1800s and mid-1900s, there are estimated to be over one million people buried on the island. In 1991, all uses of the island for purposes other than as a public cemetery ceased, but it did serve many different functions until then.
The Historic District Council created a report of 18 significant sites on the island including a Cold War-era Nike Missile launch site, an 1885 asylum, a 1930s chapel, a mid-century baseball field, and a 1912 dynamo building. While many of the extant buildings have historic and cultural value, the Department of Buildings has nonetheless deemed them unsafe and beyond repair. Citing the city’s emergency demolition order, the New York Times reported that “modern field offices for Hart Island operations, two decommissioned Cold War-era Nike missile silos, and a peace monument built by prisoners in the 1940s” will be spared from demolition and fenced off. Everything else will be razed.
The emergency nature of the demolition order allows the $52 million plan to skip the usual environmental review process and public hearings. This is a major point of contention for many preservationist groups and individuals who have a personal connection to the island and want to have a say in the fate of the structures. According to the New York City Parks Department, “all buildings in the scope of the current demolition project have been photographed and their histories recorded as part of Historic American Buildings Survey Level 2 status.”
Unforgotten Films has reached out to the Parks Department for comment and Untapped New York has sent inquiries to the Comptroller’s Office, the New York City Department of Design and Construction, and the Department of Buildings. [Update] The New York City Parks Department has responded to Untapped New York’s request for comment. “Decades of deterioration rendered the Hart Island buildings unsafe, necessitating DDC’s active emergency demolition work on our behalf,” the Department told Untapped New York, “it is expected to be completed early this year.”
Access to Hart Island remains extremely limited, with just two public visits open every month, an issue that Unforgotten Films calls attention to. While there is hope for expanded access now that the operation of the island falls to the Parks Department, all that will be left of the historic buildings are videos and photographs.
Unforgotten Minute: Hart Island is the first of three Unforgotten Films shorts that will debut this month. Keep an eye out for the next two which will feature the Washington Square Arch and Ellis Island! Check out an extended Unforgotten film about Hart Island here.
Next, check out 10 Secrets of Hart Island