New York's long-forbidden graveyard island to be converted to a park

New York's long-forbidden graveyard island to be converted to a park
As It Happens6:26New York’s long-forbidden Hart Island graveyard set to become public park

New York City's Hart Island may be marked by crumbling buildings and over a million graves — but to Melinda Hunt, it's a place of beauty.

"From the very first day that I went there, I felt that it was really misunderstood, that it wasn't really a dark place," she told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. "It was a very beautiful place. So I became very attached to the landscape."

The island, which has been closed to the public, will be free to visit starting some time this year, according to the city. Public consultations will be held over the next year to develop plans for converting it into a park.

Since 1869, New York City has buried its unclaimed dead on the island, which is just over a kilometre of land east of Orchard Beach in the Bronx. 

White posts mark graves with a dilapidated building in the background.
Grave site markers indicating plots of individual lots of buried remains stand on Hart Island on Oct. 25, 2019. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images)

That includes people whose families never claimed the body, often because they couldn't afford funeral costs. It also includes the mass graves of people who died from diseases such as COVID-19, stillborn infants, victims of crime, and people who may have come from abroad. 

Hart has been working to open the island to the public.

"I think it has to do with reconnecting the island to people around the globe who have someone buried there and giving them a voice," said Hart.

Hart Island history

Hart Island had originally been a penal colony. To this day, the city still buries over 1,000 people there a year in mass graves, according to the New York Times

The city's website says it's also been used as a quarantine station, a psychiatric hospital, a rehabilitation facility, a military base and a jail.

The island had been operated by the city's Department of Correction, with inmates handling the burials there until 2020, when COVID-19 rapidly spread through the prison population.

During New York's HIV/AIDS epidemic in during the 1980s and '90s, many who died were buried on the island.

Hunt, an artist, knew many people from the arts community who went missing during that time. So she went to Hart Island to look for them. 

A woman reads off a piece of paper into a microphone.
Melinda Hunt speaks before New York Mayor Bill de Blasio signs a legislation to make Hart Island a public park Dec. 4, 2019. (Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images)

"Somehow I think I felt that I might find them there," said Hunt. "And all this time later, there's been another epidemic. And I'm very connected to lots of families around the world who have someone there."

In 1991, Hunt was given permission to walk around the island as she worked on the book Hart Island: Discovery of an Unknown Territory with photographer Joel Sternfeld.

"It struck me as this 19th century cemetery that was really beautiful," said Hunt.

"I've really felt over the years that it was misunderstood, and that if we could manage the landscape better and get rid of the scary buildings, we could provide a better experience for people."

Giving a voice to the dead

In 2021, New York shifted burial management to the Department of Social Services, while the Department of Parks and Recreation began managing visitations.

People can ferry to the island for free by booking a vist with the parks department, or by taking part in a guided tour. 

Workers wearing personal protective equipment work in a trench on Hart Island.
Workers wearing personal protective equipment bury bodies in a trench on Hart Island on April 9, 2020, in the Bronx borough of New York. (John Minchillo/The Associated Press)

Hunt and the Hart Island Project are hoping to help people discover the island and its cemetery even further. The group has developed an online tool that uses augmented reality to allow people to learn more about the people buried there as they come upon different locations.

"I hope that they feel that the city of New York cares about them when, you know, a lot of people feel that their lives don't matter in the United States. This place represented that in a very big way," said Hunt. 

She says she hopes this will inspire other municipalities to do similar projects.

"We're hoping it will be restored as a wilderness area to teach people about the importance of natural burials and using digital tools to mark graves rather than physical monuments."