Hart Island park proposal gains support locally as City Island Civic Association not opposed to idea

Hart Island park proposal gains support locally as City Island Civic Association not opposed to idea
These are infant corpses about to be buried on Hart Island in 1992. This photograph was provided by the Hart Island Project and is copyrighted by photographer Joel Sternfeld. The Hart Island Project is advocating for Hart Island to become part of the NYC Parks Dept, which may make it easier for loved ones to visit the graves there.
Photo by Joel Sternfeld/courtesy Hart Island Project

An idea to change jurisdiction of Hart Island, in Long Island Sound near City Island, from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department, seems to be gaining traction locally.

The City Island Civic Association sent a letter to the DOC requesting that they allow key officers of their group to tour the Hart Island, home to the city’s Potters Field burial ground and several historical, but by some accounts, crumbling, buildings.

The request comes on the heals of advocacy and international media attention created in part by the Hart Island Project, which is advocating the transfer of the 100-acre island from DOC to the Parks so that the public can have better access to the graves of loved ones buried at the cemeteries there.

The CICA is not opposing the Hart Island Project’s idea, according to its letter, but feels that it needs to tour the island, which several sources said the DOC rarely allows.

“Because this is not a simple matter, however,” the letter states, “we are asking that your department arrange for a tour of Hart Island for the officers of the civic association in the near future so that we may better assess our position on this issue.”

Issues with visitation

The Hart Island Project’s Melinda Hunt has said that relatives who want to visit the deceased buried on Hart Island often have difficulty obtaining information from DOC and arranging visits.

She also said that because the DOC is only granted access to Hart Island for 16-hours per week, when a city Department of Transportation ferry is in use, the island is not completely secured and there has been vandalism, with written reports of the harm done stretching back to the early 1980s. To the DOC’s credit, Hunt said, they have in the past worked to address issues of vandalism.

“Basically, the problems are that the Department of Correction does not have enough time out on Hart Island to sufficiently maintain it,” she said, adding “they are extremely limited in the time that they have to bury the dead, to disinter the dead, to maintain 100 acres and handle visitation.”

The DOC also no longer has their own boat that allowed them to take a small crew out to Hart Island on their own, she said. This was cut by the previous mayoral administration, she said.

“I don’t understand why City Island would not want to have a park there, with all the development they are experiencing,” she said.

Hunt also noted that there had been a prison and later a adolescent rehabilitation program there in the past for young people, and that the DOC could open a facility like it in a future. Opening a facility like a prison for adolescents would become much more difficult if Hart Island were a park, said Hunt.

Not all convinced

Community Board 10 Parks Committee chairwoman Virginia Gallagher expressed her opposition to the proposal, noting that the board is already home to the city’s largest park, Pelham Bay Park. She said she believes that DOC does a good job in managing the island, and added that she has visited Hart Island with DOC.

Neither the DOC or the Parks department spokespeople offered comment on the transfer of jurisdiction proposal before press time.

Hart Island has a long history, serving as a prison for captured Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, the city’s Potters Field since the 19th Century, and a workhouse for incarcerated young men.

Reach Reporter Patrick Rocchio at (718) 742–3393. E-mail him at procc‌hio@c‌ngloc‌al.com. Follow him on Twitter @patrickfrocchio.

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