For decades the city’s public cemetery off the eastern coast of the Bronx has restricted people from its grounds. But starting this week, it’s open to the public.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announced it would begin offering free educational tours of Hart Island — the small isle that serves as the final resting place for more than 1 million New Yorkers — twice a month, the pilot taking place today.
“There’s been a lack of access since the 80s, there’s been a cloud of mystery, almost, that surrounds the island,” said Michael Whitten, an urban park ranger for the city. “We want to help to de-stigmatize the island, and part of that is sharing the full history as much as we can.”
The city started using Hart Island, which is accessible by ferry from City Island, as a public burial site in 1869. Plots have historically been occupied by people who “died indigent” or whose bodies went unclaimed after their death.
And while Hart Island has held many identities throughout the years — including everything from a place for bare-knuckle boxing matches to a site for festivals and carnivals — it has continued to serve as a mass grave in New York City. Most recently, the cemetery has been used to bury people taken by both the AIDS and COVID-19 pandemics.
From the ground, Hart Island looks like large isle of open green-grass fields with views of New Rochelle to the north and the Throgs Neck Bridge to the south. One might not even know it’s a cemetery upon entrance, as only some sections of the island are adorned with small identical white numbered markers.
Urban Park Rangers said during the sneak peek tour last week that the new programming, which has been in the works for the past year, aims to provide a link between the island and the whole of New York City.
Registration is now open for the free educational programming by visiting the Hart Island Tours webpage. Park rangers will be leading the next tours on Dec. 5 and Dec. 19.
Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes