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Hart Island should become publicly accessible parkland: pols

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Lawmakers slammed the “madness” of the current process to visit buried relatives

White markers indicate mass graves of 150 people on Hart Island.
Seth Wenig/AP

The city must accelerate plans to make Hart Island more accessible, and improve how the battered site—the country’s largest public cemetery—is maintained, demanded lawmakers at a City Council hearing on the burial ground’s future.

For 150 years, tens of thousands of poor and disenfranchised New Yorkers have been buried on the remote island, located off the northeast edge of the Bronx. Veterans dating back to the Civil War, along with stillborn children, the unclaimed, or those whose families could not afford a typical burial are interred there. The Department of Corrections (DOC) operates the island—detainees from Rikers Island are paid $1 an hour to bury bodies—which makes for a militant process to visit; it can also be emotionally fraught for those seeking to pay their respects to loved ones.

To change that, City Council member Ydanis Rodriguez has introduced a pair of bills that would transfer ownership of Hart Island to the NYC Parks Department and spur the creation of public ferry service to the potter’s field. The city has also proposed transferring the site from DOC to the Parks Department once it selects a new site for burials. But that process could take years—and legislators want that transfer and improved accessibility to happen immediately.

“The public has waited far too long to gain access in a responsible and reasonable way to Hart Island,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson at Thursday’s hearing. “There needs to be a plan—an immediate plan—about how we’re going to give greater accessibility and comfort to visiting loved ones in the meantime.”

Matt Drury, director of government relations for the Parks Department, noted that it’s “difficult to forecast a timeline for the transition” given the complex logistics involved with shifting management of the island. The city’s Human Resources Administration is in the midst of searching for a new location to bury New Yorkers and plans to release a Request for Information in the fall for input on viable alternatives. In the meantime, Parks and DOC are in talks with each other and the Mayor’s Office to develop a “path forward,” said Drury.

“This is a pretty massive and complicated undertaking with a lot of very different and technical aspects to it,” said Drury. “So the city is just doing its best to make sure that this is fully examined and fully thought out.”

More than one million people are buried on Hart Island; of those, 1,213 people were interred there last year, including 81 children, 303 fetal remains, and 829 adults, according to city data. Amid the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s, Hart Island was used as a burial site for the city’s first victims of the virus, who were laid to rest in an isolated area away from the remains of other individuals.

To pay their respects, friends or relatives have two options: monthly visits for any member of the public to a gazebo that does not overlook graves, and monthly gravesite visits for family members. Visitors must register 12 days in advance, come in groups of five or less, provide photo ID, and be over the age of 16. They are also asked to turn over their belongings during visits and are escorted by DOC staff throughout the process. It can be a demoralizing experience for those simply wishing to be near the grave of a dead relative or friend.

DOC took control of the island in 1868, and after fierce advocacy and a lawsuit, the agency opened up regular access to the island in 2015. If Rodriguez’s bill is approved, it would go into affect 180 days—or roughly six months—after the bill becomes law. But he says that prior to that, the city should work to make the island easier to reach and said the NYC Ferry system could be one option.

“Those that visit Hart Island deserve to visit family members and friends. [They] should feel welcomed and respected,” said Rodriguez. Public access to the island will also allow New Yorkers to learn about its history and ensure that those buried there are not forgotten to time.

“It is my hope that this transportation plan will eventually make Hart Island more accessible ... and make it easier for visitors to visit the island so they can learn about its history,” said Rodriguez. “A history that tells the countless stories of New York’s immigrants, the poor, the homeless, the marginalized, and the rejected.”