Hart Island, burial site for 1 million New Yorkers, opens to the public

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By Dan Sears

Hart Island, the city’s burial ground in the Long Island Sound that has been inaccessible for decades, was unveiled as a new public space on Wednesday.

Starting next week, the island will be open twice a month to free walking tours hosted by the Parks Department, which will offer a ferry to visitors from City Island in the Bronx. The island has served as a potter’s field where the city has buried more than 1 million people since 1869. Many of the bodies were never claimed or identified.

Those interred on the island include people who died in poverty, whose families could not afford a funeral – and New Yorkers who passed away amid public health crises like the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.

City officials said the public tours, led by the Urban Park Rangers, will be a way to teach New Yorkers about the city’s history and to show them Hart Island is a peaceful and calm resting place despite its usage as a mass burial site.

“It’s our hope that our ranger tours will also serve to reduce historical stigmas surrounding the island’s past and educate the public about its important role going forward,” Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue said during a press tour of the island Wednesday.

Aside from a few memorial statues, white metal markers with numbers are the most visible reminders that the island holds 150 years of buried New Yorkers. The field with the oldest plots has developed sunken depressions where trenches were repeatedly dug over time.

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The island’s long history includes more than burials. The 31st Infantry Unit of U.S. Colored Troops trained on the island. There was a reform school, rehab centers, and a women’s psychiatric hospital located there, all in the name of “care, and correction,” said Urban Park Ranger Kasha Pavdar.

Similar to the jail on Rikers Island and the smallpox hospital on Roosevelt Island, the isolation of Hart Island made it an ideal spot to quarantine people away from the rest of society, Pavdar said. Until this year, the island was under the jurisdiction of the Department of Correction. For decades, inmates at Rikers Island were assigned to dig the grave sites.

“Today, Hart Island is used primarily just as a resting place,” Pavdar said. “But we cannot forget that it was also a place where people were cared for, and where people were sent to get better – and also a place where institutions were held on the island that perhaps could have been better.”

The island was closed to the public in the 1980s after vandalism and fires destroyed records and the old buildings began to deteriorate. The City Council passed legislation in 2021 requiring the DOC to cede control of the island to the Parks Department as part of a broader project to improve the grounds and operations, and make it more accessible to the public.

The city’s Department of Design and Construction has cleared most of the dilapidated buildings on the island, except for the shell of an old Catholic church chapel, which was preserved for its history.

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DDC Commissioner Tom Foley said the chapel was too dangerous for the public to enter, “but our hope and expectation is to rehabilitate it, just so that it’ll remain as a structure in place.”

Barbara Dolensek, a resident of neighboring City Island and an officer of the City Island Historical Society and the Nautical Museum, said she has seen how Hart Island’s buildings became dangerous for visitors over the years and she praised the city’s redesign.

“I think what they’ve done here is absolutely fabulous, in that they’ve made it a respectful sort of place, without a lot of the elements that were obviously disintegrating,” Dolensek said.

Martin Thompson, who has worked on Hart Island for nearly 20 years, said he thinks “it’s just one of the most beautiful spots in the city of New York.”

“What we encourage from the people who come here to visit the gravesites of their loved ones – at times, this is the only opportunity to have that closure visit,” said Thompson, who is the Human Resources Administration’s executive director for operations for Hart Island.

“And often we ask them, what was their impression after visiting because most people have a very dark view of what they think Hart Island is – and it’s changed, transformed once they have visited here,” Thompson said.

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Hart Island will remain an active burial site, and the city does not charge families any fees for burial. People who want to search for ancestors or loved ones on the island can contact the Human Resources Administration for assistance, though officials said most records before 1977 were destroyed in a fire.

The tours are available by lottery on the Parks Department website, with space for about 30 people on each visit. The walking tours are about two and a half hours and cover the island by foot. Parks Department staffers say visitors should show appropriate respect if they come across a funeral.

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