Parks department opens Hart Island to the public

The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announced its rangers will begin leading tours of Hart Island. The effort to dispel negative perceptions of the mass graveyard starts on Nov. 21, 2023.
The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation announced its rangers will begin leading tours of Hart Island. The effort to dispel negative perceptions of the mass graveyard starts on Nov. 21, 2023.
Photo Camille Botello

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.”

Officials wait on the ferry dock in City Island. Hart Island, in the background, is accessible from the dock by ferry.
Officials wait on the ferry dock in City Island. Hart Island, in the background, is accessible from the dock by ferry. Photo Camille Botello
Kasha Pazdar, an urban park ranger, gives a tour of the island. It's part of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation's new free educational programming.
Kasha Pazdar, an urban park ranger, gives a tour of the island. It’s part of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation’s new free educational programming. Photo Camille Botello

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.

There are an estimated one million New Yorkers buried on Hart Island.
There are an estimated 1 million New Yorkers buried on Hart Island. Photo Camille Botello
The island's pathways are now open to the public.
The island’s pathways are now open to the public. Photo Camille Botello

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.

Some of the sections of Hart Island have little white markers.
Some of the sections of Hart Island have little white markers. Photo Camille Botello
Hart Island has long been a symbol of intrigue and mystery, something Parks is now trying to move away from.
Hart Island has long been a symbol of intrigue and mystery, something Parks is now trying to move away from. Photo Camille Botello

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.

The ferry leaves City Island across the water in the distance.
The ferry leaves City Island across the water in the distance. Photo Camille Botello

Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes