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Eternal City

A Visit to Hart Island, NYC’s Long-Forbidden Isle of Mass Graves

A new tour available to New Yorkers frames the island’s history through "three C's": care, corrections, and containment.

Grave markers on Hart Island.

Grave markers on Hart Island (Hell Gate)

On a cold November day, Hart Island is strangely beautiful. The nearly-bare branches of London plane trees make dramatic silhouettes against the slate sky. The Long Island Sound laps against the shore. Buoy bells clang in the distance. Geese pick their way through one of the island’s many open fields, among slabs of white concrete that mark the mass graves of the nearly one million New Yorkers buried across its 131 acres.

"Ten years ago, this tour was unthinkable," says New York City Urban Park Ranger Kasha Pazdar, as she and her colleague Mike Whitten lead our group of 26 visitors towards a grove of trees on the island’s northwestern edge. Pazdar, Whitten, and the rest of us are here for the first-ever public tour of the island, which is the largest public cemetery in the country. For more than 150 years, the city has buried its unclaimed dead here, as well as those who can’t afford a private burial. A decade ago, family members couldn’t even visit their loved ones' gravesites. That only changed in 2015, thanks to decades of advocacy by people like Melinda Hunt, founder of The Hart Island Project, and a class-action lawsuit the New York Civil Liberties Union filed against the City. Even today, the island is only open for gravesite visits two weekends per month.

Hart Island's chapel (Lauren Vespoli / Hell Gate)

Hart Island is just a half mile east of City Island in the Bronx, but for decades, it was inaccessible to most New Yorkers. From 1869 until 2021, the Department of Correction had jurisdiction over the island, using inmate labor to bury the dead and maintaining strict visitation policies. Over the last 40-some years, it was a place that only entered the public imagination during large-scale health crises that isolated people from their loved ones. The island is believed to be the largest burial ground for AIDS victims anywhere in the U.S., and one in 10 New Yorkers who died from COVID were laid to rest there. During the first months of the pandemic, it was hard to escape the aerial shots of incarcerated workers wearing white PPE, lowering pine boxes into mass graves.

Now that the Parks Department has control over Hart Island, they say they want to "reduce historical stigmas" by giving twice-monthly walking tours, with 30 free slots available via lottery. Our tour group is composed of several older couples, as well as a young tenant organizer from the Bronx who took a comp day after learning she got a spot, and a woman who lives down the street from the Hart Island ferry terminal on City Island. Despite the warning Pazdar gives about the "heavy topics" covered in the tour, there’s a quiet sense of excitement among the group as we board the ferry. On the ride over, a woman in a long black coat offers to snap my photo, and I feel too awkward to say no. 

Over the next two-and-a-half hours, Pazdar and Whitten take us on a 1.5-mile loop around the northern end of the island. Visitors are only allowed on the northern end, where adult burials ended in 1989.  The southern end is still reserved for burying the dead in large graves—1,100 burials still happen every year, and are now managed by the Human Resources Administration.

Hart Island is pretty barren—since the Parks Department takeover, the City has demolished 15 historic buildings because they were severely deteriorating. But we stop to look at the few structures that remain: a 1935 red brick interfaith chapel; an obelisk marking a Civil War veterans' burial site; a concrete peace monument built by incarcerated New Yorkers after World War II; a wooden gazebo built by the Department of Correction; and even a pair of Cold War Nike missile silos. "Another example of the City putting something it doesn’t really want people to know about on Hart Island," Pazdar tells the group.

Peace monument on Hart Island (Lauren Vespoli / Hell Gate)

This is one of the primary themes of the tour: the City using Hart Island as a remote place where it could shunt anything the public considered undesirable. Over the years, that has included a tuberculosis hospital, a women’s "insane asylum," a young men’s prison, and a drug rehab facility. One of my favorite facts of the tour: In the 1970s the rehab, Phoenix House, would host a sober music festival that brought thousands out to the island, including the Velvet Underground. Pazdar and Whitten frame the island’s history through "three C's: care, corrections, and containment." Hart Island, Pazdar says, is "part of a larger archipelago used for these social services."  

During the tour, I only notice one active burial site, which Whitten points out to us as we walk by. A white post sticks out of a hole in the dirt, marked with the number 871. Surrounded by four white posts, it looks much smaller than I would have imagined for a mass grave. We keep walking.

Hart Island gazebo in the distance (Lauren Vespoli / Hell Gate)

It feels a bit disingenuous to say that Hart Island has truly "opened" to the public. When you arrive for the tour, the ferry dock on City Island is still blocked by a chain link fence until boarding, and you have to sign an indemnity waiver and a visitor’s log before even getting on the boat. On the island, there’s no space to wander freely, and the focus is firmly on the past.

But Hart Island is currently part of the public conversation because of its own complex relationship to the City, not another unthinkable tragedy. A new podcast, "The Unmarked Graveyard," has been airing the stories of people buried on Hart Island on NPR. The Parks Department received 1,100 requests for its first tour lottery. 

Beneath the gazebo where visiting families and friends can gather, Pazdar tells us that we are responsible for increasing access to the island. "The next iteration of Hart Island depends on the lens we hold up to the city," she says, "and what we demand as citizens."

Approach to Hart Island (Lauren Vespoli / Hell Gate)
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