The Curious Case of Hart Island

This article was updated on March 18th, 2015

Hart Island, Photo by David Trawin

Hart Island, Photo by David Trawin

It has stillborn babies, unfortunate tourists and people who died without any known kin. Hart Island, the potter’s field on the East River, is only slightly accessible to the public, and that is causing a bit of a stir.

Hart Island lies off the coast of the Bronx, just east of City Island. New York City first started to use it as a graveyard in 1869. The Hart Island Project estimates that the cemetery covers 101 acres, and just since 1980, 62,324 people have been buried there, in mass graves. Individual coffins are stacked on top of each other by inmates from Rikers Island, which is just a few miles south.

The main point of contention around the island lately centers on visitation rights. People who want to visit the graves of their loved ones on Hart Island do so at the pleasure and under the surveillance of the Department of Corrections. This involves a boat that visits the island once a month. The Department has built a gazebo for visitors instead of allowing them to wander around the gravesites. This gesture hasn’t proved very popular.

For years, relatives of the deceased, as well as the advocacy group called the Hart Island Project, have pushed for better access to the graves. Community Board 10 approved a proposed law in January that would transfer jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department. Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D-Queens), who chairs the Committee on Fire and Criminal Justice, introduced a bill to the City Council that would do the same, as well as another that would provide ferry service to the island. “My vision is to make the island more accessible and not to have visitors feel that they’re going to visit an inmate, rather than going to a traditional type of cemetery,” said Crowley. Both bills are still in committee, but Crowley is hoping for a hearing sometime in June. Back in January, she took Council Member Mark Levine, chair of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, out to visit the island. Members of the Parks Department also came.

Meanwhile, the New York Civil Liberties Union filed a class action lawsuit against the city in December, centering on the rights of families to visit their loved ones. They are arguing that the families of the dead are being denied due process and the freedom to exercise their religion. In a statement, the NYCLU said that plaintiff Cortes Lusero, who has a stillborn daughter buried on the island, wants to hold a memorial service with a Roman Catholic priest.

But the problem with the proposed solution is that the Parks Department is less than excited about the prospect of running Hart Island. They have refused jurisdiction, claiming that managing access and the level of supervision required for an active burial site on an island is beyond the resources of the agency. If the bill goes through city council and is ratified by the mayor, however, they will have to comply with the law.

The Parks Department does oversee several graveyards in New York City, though most of them are inactive. Robert Freudenberg, the director of energy and environmental programs for the Regional Planning Association, has previously been involved with creating the Brooklyn Greenway Initiative that has its own inactive graveyard—the Naval Cemetery. “Any time Parks takes on new property or new responsibilities, we always want to make sure that they know what they’re getting into,” said Freudenberg. “The big idea is—can you make it a place of peace and reflection and respect for what was there?”

Hart Island has been in the media more than usual lately, largely due to the efforts of Melinda Hunt, an artist and advocate who founded the Hart Island Project and the Traveling Cloud Museum. The museum acts as a virtual graveyard—names and burial dates are recorded, and visitors can explore and add to an individual’s life story. Hunt approves of transferring the island to the Parks Department, and envisions a scenario in which the Traveling Cloud Museum overlaps with the real graveyard. “Once Hart Island becomes accessible as a park, or as a result of a court order, people will be able to take their mobile devices onto Hart Island,” she said. “Our interactive map will become an essential tool for people wishing to visit graves.”

Katherine Orff, a Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at Columbia University, supports the idea of a park. “New Yorkers are reconnecting to their harbor in so many ways—another island park seems to be an amazing opportunity to reconnect culturally with the water. Islands can also play a role in habitat regeneration and coastal resiliency,” she said.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has moved to expand ferry service in the past few months, pushing to include routes to Queens, the Lower East Side, and the Rockaways. Hart Island, however, doesn’t have the numbers to necessarily support regular ferry service.

“There’s a lot that all different agencies have to figure out and agree on to really make this happen effectively,” said Freudenberg.


Corrections: This article previously stated that there were civil war soldiers buried on Hart Island. Those soldiers are not there any longer, and have be reinterred elsewhere. Hart Island is east of City Island, not west. The first person buried by the City of New York was buried in 1869, not 1986. Not all potters fields run by the Parks Department are smaller than one acre.