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Lawsuit Decries Limited Access to New York’s Publicly Funded Mass Grave

Photograph by Jacob Riis of a trench at the Hart Island potter's field (1860) (via Museum of the City of New York)
Photograph by Jacob Riis of a trench at the Hart Island potter’s field (1860) (via Museum of the City of New York)

Supported by tax payers on a city-owned island, New York City’s potter’s field is one of the country’s most inaccessible publicly funded spaces. The Hart Island cemetery is the secluded final resting place for over a million people, their bodies layered in trenches by inmates from nearby Rikers Island. An irregular ferry shuttles family members to a lonely gazebo and solitary tombstone on the edge of the island, the closest they can get to their loved ones.

Hart Island is the easternmost point in the Bronx borough of NYC (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)
Hart Island is the easternmost point in the Bronx borough of NYC (Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The New York Daily News reported Wednesday that the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) is filing a class action lawsuit that Hart Island visiting conditions are violating civil rights. In the complaint, NYCLU decries the “disgraceful policy of barring gravesite visits on Hart Island.” The case’s lead counsel, NYCLU Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn, added: “By preventing people from visiting the graves of their loved ones, the Department of Corrections is robbing people of the basic right to mourn and express their grief in the way they want.”

New York City is riddled with public spaces marred with accessibility issues, usually those that are privately-owned in exchange for zoning benefits, the most famous being Zuccotti Park, which hosted Occupy Wall Street. However, it’s even more shameful when it’s a place of mourning. Controlled by the Department of Correction, visiting Hart Island can be like entering a prison. IDs are checked, phones are taken, and the closely monitored visiting section is a disconnected, stark vista to the island with its rough ground and ruins from hospitals and other bleak history.

View to Hart Island from City Island, The Bronx (photograph by David Trawin, via Flickr)
View to Hart Island from City Island, The Bronx (photograph by David Trawin, via Flickr)

It’s a misconception that all the people buried on Hart Island were poor and anonymous. The city bought the island in 1869, and for over a century since it’s been a final destination for a diverse cross-section of people with no other option. Many homeless and people who died indigent are buried here, but so are unclaimed bodies, abandoned children who were born with HIV/AIDs, and stillborn babies whose mothers were offered the city burial, without it being explicitly explained just how unreachable that grave would be. Last month, Chris Arnade at the Awl told a devastating story about a prostitute named Millie buried on the island, whose body went unidentified. He wrote: “On the streets, little is certain. Hart Island magnifies that uncertainty, adding one more thing to fear about death — a place where you are buried in a trench that nobody can visit.” The Department of Correction site states Hart Island is open to the public, but getting even that limited access is an arduous process.

In March of this year, I collaborated with Bess Lovejoy on an op-ed for the New York Times about the situation on Hart Island, timed alongside the reintroduction of legislature by NYC council members led by Elizabeth Crowley to move control from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. That coupled with more frequent ferry service could transform Hart Island from a forgotten Bronx island into a public space. Artist Melinda Hunt has also been long rallying for more access through the Hart Island Project.

Visibility is essential for change at Hart Island. Last month, city officials organized a day when family members could give DNA samples, an effort to help identify remains in the mass grave. These small steps forward can resonate the personal connections to this place, where people are remembered and cannot be mourned, or completely forgotten and given the last insult of isolation.

The full NYCLU Hart Island Complaint can be read online

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