Push to allow visits to Potters Field

Push to allow visits to Potters Field
Photo by Joel Sternfeld/courtesy Hart Island Project

Potter’s field a park?

A well-established grassroots organization is advocating just that for Hart Island just off City Island.

The Hart Island Project’s Melinda Hunt made a presentation before Community Board 10’s Parks and Recreation committee on Monday, Jan. 13 asking the board’s support for for a bill to be re-introduced by Queens Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley to amend the city’s administrative code, turning over jurisdiction of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Parks Department.

The city has buried indigent New Yorkers there since just after the Civil War, with close to one million burials, including infants and children.

The idea, Hunt explained, is to allow the families of the deceased a chance to visit the potter’s field grave sites without having to go through Corrections’ rigorous screening processes.

Prisoners from Rikers Island dig the graves. They are ferried to and from the island from the eastern end of Fordham Street on City Island, she said. The DOC strictly limits access, with any visitors permitted no further than a gazebo near the dock on Hart Island, far from the actual burial sites, she said.

She said that while she and Project have a cordial relationship with the DOC, that “they are just the wrong city agency to manage public visitation of a cemetery.”

“A mother should not have to go through Rikers Island procedures to visit her child,” she said.

She added: “DOC officers are paid to do a dangerous job, and I think the City Council needs to update the administrative code and assign it to an appropriate agency.”

Crowley spokesman Eric Yun said the councilwoman believes Hart Island is a place to which the public deserves greater access and that the matter should be explored.

CB 10’s Parks Committee urged Hunt to visit the City Island Civic Association to speak about her ideas and logistical issues that would bring more visitors to Hart Island, because it could affect City Island.

“The one main objection that I have is how much are you going to overtax the Parks Department,” said committee member James McQuade, adding that Parks is limited by budgetary constraints, and that they cannot even get something as simple as Parks Enforcement Police officers for Ferry Point Park.

McQuade called Hart Island “one of the most beautiful sites on earth,” echoing Hunt’s comments that the burial site is “a glorious location.”

Parks Department spokesman Nathan Arnosti stated in an e-mail that “Hart Island remains an active burial site, NYC Parks has refused jurisdiction.”

Hunt, a graphic artist, said she first became interested in Hart Island when she visited it in 1991 to photograph sites that late-19th and early-20th century journalist and photographer Jacob Riis cataloged 100 years earlier.

“I was surprised on how beautiful a place it was,” she said, adding “it was a sad place, but not a dark place.”

Patrick Rocchio can be reach via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (718) 742-3393

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