My continuing quest to see everything in New York City

Explorations & Adventures               About       Press       Tours       Links             Travel Blog

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Hart Island

Hart Island is not its own census tract - instead being included in Bronx Tract 516 along with City Island. This is probably why I never felt the kind of sense of purpose in getting there that I've felt with some islands with no land access - like the Brother Islands or some Jamaica Bay Islands - that make up the entirety of their census tracts. If I had felt that, I'm sure I would have done what others have done - take a boat or canoe out very early Sunday morning, when the island is inactive. For those who don't know, Hart Island is the city's Potters Field, and the largest taxpayer-funded cemetery in the world. Inmates from Riker's Island do the work, and as a result the island is fairly well patrolled when it's active.

Instead I went a different way, on a bimonthly memorial trip with Picture the Homeless, an advocacy group. The visit was brief, and very moving. A memorial pagoda has been constructed a short ways away from where the ferry docks on the island, and the trip consisted of a short walk there, a remembrance of the people buried on the island among the group, and a slightly longer walk back. Altogether there was an amazing sense of peace to the island, a sense I would have been bereft of if I had chosen to go a more clandestine route.

There is no reason why there cannot be more public access to the island. In the 1990s extensive tours of the island were offered. I chatted a bit with two corrections officers in charge of the island about why the visits were now so infrequent and  restricted, with no pictures or journalists allowed.

Now, these are the guys who run the jails. As such I suspected "security" - probably having to do with the fact that prisoners work on the island burying the dead - to simply be the knee-jerk response. But instead I got something different - that the island was for the families of the deceased, that they didn't want to offend anyone by allowing just anyone access to the place. "That's not what this place is about" was one response I got when I asked why people couldn't visit.

I accepted that they personally believed this, although on an institutional level it made no sense. Discounting the fact that families have to go through an extremely onerous process to even visit, no other city has this issue - we are the only municipality without open access to our public cemetery. After all, cemeteries are by and large public spaces. I have never in my life heard anyone complain that a stranger was walking through a cemetery where their loved one happened to be buried. And it shouldn't matter anyway - what the officers didn't understand was that this shouldn't be their decision to make. Often time civil servants feel a sense of ownership of the public works they're sent to steward, forgetting the "public" part of the "public works."

Luckily, there's been a little bit of interest in more open access, with the City Council looking at switching the jurisdiction to the Parks Department from the Department of Corrections, and otherwise trying to make the island more accessible. It would be a wonderful public benefit to combine the best of the two ways people visit now: the freedom of going without supervision, along with the calm of going legitimately. In their testimony before City Council the Corrections Department was reduced to citing "lack of bathrooms and water fountains" as a reason visitation isn't allowed. That this island isn't available for visitation yet is simply a testimony to the culture of providing public accessibility here in New York - that it's simply not worth the hassle. In a normal paradigm, public ownership, demand, and the lack of any rational reason to deny access would lead to an open area. But in New York we're always struggling against the "just easier to keep it closed" mentality.

Neighborhoods: Hart Island
Tracts Walked: Bx516