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New York’s newest park could be built atop nearly a million unmarked graves

Will Gleason

Hart Island, which just east of the Bronx in the mouth of the Long Island Sound, boasts breathtaking views of the water, fascinating examples of Victorian architecture, 100 acres of open space and...the bodies of almost one million dead New Yorkers.

The largest publicly funded cemetery in the world, Hart Island has served as a potter’s field for New York City since 1869. Since then, it’s housed a prison, a workhouse for the poor, an insane asylum, a tuberculosis sanatorium and a missile base. Currently, around 1,500 bodies are buried there annually.

And in a few years, you might be able to picnic there. City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, who represents Ridgewood, Maspeth and Glendale in Queens, has introduced a bill that would transfer control of the half-mile-long island to the Parks Department. The goal would be to open the island to the public, transforming it into a space similar to Governor’s Island.

“The island has a unique, beautiful idyllic setting that is different than any place in the city,” says Councilwoman Crowley. “It would be a nice place for people to visit. Especially, for those who have an actual connection to the island if you have a loved one buried there.”

Since 1975, the Department of Corrections has run Hart Island (the bodies are buried by Riker’s Island inmates) and the area has been mostly closed to the public. Those wishing to pay their respects have to file an application to visit the island on a ferry (which runs only once a month). Once there, visitors are not allowed to go more than 20 yards past the dock or see any of the graves—there’s a designated “mourning gazebo”. 

Transforming the island into a park would not mean the land would cease to be used as a burial site, however. Instead, the proposed legislation would limit Riker’s inmates' work there to two days per week, and section off the area where active burials are taking place. Crowley recently toured the island with Council Member Mark Levine, the chairman of the Parks and Recreation committee, and representatives from the mayor’s office. Bronx Community Board 10 signed off on the legislation last Thursday, and Crowley says she expects a hearing on the bill by June.

But before you poo-poo the idea of an afternoon spent hanging near buried bodies, you should know that you've probably already done it. Washington Square Park, Madison Square Park, Bryant Park and Prospect Park were all originally used for public burials.

Painting of Hart Island as a park by Nestor MadalengoitiaThe Hart Island Project


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