January 20, 2016
By Nina Bernstein
It was a vision to beguile many New Yorkers: an all-but-forgotten island in Long Island Sound that a noisy city would transform into its most tranquil park. And there was a concurrent vision for the families of the dead long buried there, on Hart Island: a cemetery now run like a prison would become a place to freely mourn.
But at a City Council hearing on Wednesday on a bill to transfer jurisdiction over the island’s 101 acres from the Department of Correction to the parks department, there was opposition by all the city agencies affected. In the end, the vision came to seem more like a dream than a quick solution to years of criticism and litigation over Hart Island and its role as the city’s only potter’s field.
The parks department does not want it. “The operation of a public cemetery falls well outside of the agency’s expertise and available resources,” Matt Drury, director of government relations for the department, testified. “It is fair to estimate that any renovation of the island to allow use for the general public could cost upwards of tens of millions of dollars.”
Last year, 1,137 bodies went to Hart Island for mass burials, transported from the medical examiner’s morgues several times a week throughout the year, weather and tides permitting. Seven or eight inmates from Rikers Island are taken there by ferry to do the shoveling, under the supervision of five correction officers and a captain. Burial plots are long trenches, dug by bulldozer, where 150 adults or 1,000 infants are placed in plain pine boxes.
“It seems so 19th century,” said Brad Lander, a Brooklyn Democrat, one of 23 co-sponsors of the bill, introduced by Elizabeth Crowley, a Democrat from Queens, and Mark Levine, a Manhattan Democrat. “It’s ghoulish to think of Rikers inmates being trucked over to bury infants who have been abandoned.”
In terms of cost, Ms. Crowley said, correction officers would be more effectively used to deal with violence at the jail, not supervising burials. She voiced disbelief at the Correction Department’s $400,000 estimate of the expense to run the potter’s field, suggesting the cost was much higher.
But even under her sharp questioning, Carleen McLaughlin, director of legislative affairs at the Correction Department, insisted, “We’re happy to continue managing Hart Island.”
After the hearing, Mr. Levine, chairman of the Committee on Parks and Recreation, said, “I’m disappointed by the lack of vision we heard today from the administration.”
Under the terms of a settlement reached last year in a federal class action lawsuit, small groups of family members and their guests have been permitted to take a restricted city ferry to the island to visit grave sites once a month. But Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, told the Council that the settlement, which awaits final court approval, “falls short of what sound public policy and plain common sense would dictate for New York City’s potter’s field."
Anyone should be able to visit a Hart Island grave site, he said, not just relatives who register with the government and have to pass through a razor-wired entrance to a ferry from City Island, subjecting themselves to a search as well as the confiscation of cellphones that could be used to take pictures. Efforts to soften such rules have been rebuffed.
“As long as D.O.C. runs the facility, we are going to run it with the D.O.C. mentality,” he said, urging a transfer of jurisdiction to any other city agency.
Tupper Thomas, executive director of New Yorkers for Parks, a century-old nonprofit group, agreed that the current arrangement is “just totally unacceptable in so many ways.” But, noting that the parks department uses welfare-to-work recipients for 70 percent of its park maintenance, she said that the bill should not be passed unless it comes “with a lot more money and thought.”
Melinda Hunt, a filmmaker and founder of the Hart Island Project who has been advocating more open access to the island for 25 years, said the city should rethink the whole burial process. A novel proposal that she supports, sketched out by British landscape architects, would make Hart Island the city’s only “natural” or “green” burial place, allowing bodies to decay quickly into earth, perhaps with trees over them, and memorializing them online through GPS, rather than markers. The city might even be able to sell such graves to affluent, ecology-minded New Yorkers, Ms. Hunt said — if it addresses the shore erosion that has at times sent skulls to wash ashore on City Island.
Mr. Levine evoked a seductive image of what Hart Island could be for the many New Yorkers who now do not even know it exists. “There’s something about being on an island in the middle of Long Island Sound,” he said, “with centuries of history and a million stories to tell.”
One of those stories was told in the day’s most poignant testimony. It came from Elaine Joseph, a retired naval officer who said it was the 38th anniversary of the death of her 4-day-old baby daughter, Tomika. Her daughter died not indigent or abandoned, but after heart surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital during the blizzard of 1978, when the city was shut down. Her body was lost between the hospital and the medical examiner’s office, and until 2009 her mother was not able to find out where she was buried. It was on Hart Island.
Ms. Joseph had to threaten a lawsuit to win the right to visit the grave site. She is grateful to the city, she said, but on her last visit, an armed correction officer would not allow her to walk over to the water, or pay her respects at the veterans’ plot within view.
“I’m looking for a park,” she said, “a bench where I can put a plaque with my daughter’s name.”