Stephen used to sit on the same bench at Riverside Park in the Upper West Side nearly every day. But after his body turned up dead in 2017 and officials couldn’t identify him, he was buried on Hart Island.,,His story — like many buried on the small isle off the Bronx’s eastern coast — was lost, until a woman who knew him from the park came across his true identity. Now that story of Stephen, whose birth name was Neil Harris Jr., and others who were laid to rest on Hart Island — some otherwise forgotten — is coming to light thanks to a new Radio Diaries and Radiotopia podcast that aims to pay tribute to their lives.
The first episode of “The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island,” titled “The Man On The Bench (Neil Harris Jr.),” comes out Thursday on the Radio Diaries podcast.
Joe Richman, a Peabody-winning reporter and producer and the founder of Radio Diaries, who also hosts the show, said “The Unmarked Graveyard” coincides with the types of stories told on other shows — which mostly are “hidden and buried and less known.”
“We think about a lot of our stories as sort of living obituaries … celebrating people and stories, preserving them before they’re gone,” Richman said in an interview with the Bronx Times.
The small isle of Hart Island, also known as the City Cemetery or Potter’s Field, is a mass graveyard where more than 1 million New Yorkers are buried. When the city began using the island as a public burial site in 1869, plots were occupied by people who “died indigent” — whose families either couldn’t afford other burial services or whose bodies went unclaimed after their death. Most recently, the island was used to bury people who died of epidemic and pandemic diseases — most notably AIDS and COVID-19.
The New York City Department of Corrections (DOC) managed the graveyard on Hart Island for more than 150 years, up until it was used as a disciplinary barracks site for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines during World War II. After the war, it was returned to the DOC, where inmates — getting paid between 25 and 35 cents per hour — handled burials, disinterments and other maintenance tasks. It was only in 2019 that the New York City Council passed legislation to turn the cemetery into a public park, and in July 2021 NYC Parks officially took over management of the island.
Radio Diaries has been one of media’s most unique forms of journalism for almost 30 years now. In 1996, Richman gave subjects their own tape recorders so they could chronicle their personal stories and histories with their voices. Now, Radio Diaries shows air on NPR’s “All Things Considered” segment, the weekly public radio program “This American Life” and BBC, to name a few.
Richman said Hart Island, while the name might be well known, it’s still a mystery to a lot of people — including some whose loved ones are laid to rest there.
“We’re just really drawn to the idea of telling stories and celebrating some of the people there who never got that recognition … while they were alive,” he said.
And telling this story with audio specifically, he said, makes it even more impactful.
“I just think there’s no medium like it as far as the kind of intimacy and the way that it gets inside our brains and our bodies and our emotions,” Richman said. “It’s really a medium that allows us to kind of surprise us and make us think differently about people and stories.”
Hart Island has also recently become somewhat of a symbol for social justice, with advocates calling on the city to properly memorialize and de-stigmatize their dead. Having been under DOC management for more than a century and many of the people buried either unclaimed, illness-laden or from poor families — documentation of the people’s circumstances, lives and stories is oftentimes missing or nonexistent.
Alissa Escarce, one of the show’s producers, told the Bronx Times that the topic seemed “fertile” and well-suited for a Radio Diaries dedication because of all the mystery and intricacies of Hart Island. The team started researching and reporting about two years ago.
“There’s so many of these deeply personal complicated stories about family and about the way the city runs that are emotional and kind of complex and the types of stories that we like to tell,” Escarce said.
A distinct challenge with this series, unlike some others in the Radio Diaries Radiotopia network, is the fact that the story’s subjects aren’t here, Richman and Escarce said. The team investigated each person’s life with the help of Hart Island Project — a database and map of plots that aims to tell the story of the cemetery with notes from loved ones.
“We were able to get in touch with many of the families who had written those notes and some of them were open to talking and I’m so grateful for that,” Escarce said. “You know, a lot of these stories … it’s very sensitive.”
Harris Jr. was buried on the island in a pine coffin, only identifiable by a white post that read “Plot 383.” But even though Hart Island is infamous for forgetting its permanent inhabitants, the Radio Diaries team found that Harris Jr. had many people looking for him — from the security guard who found his body and friends who posted missing pamphlets, to a local journalist who spotted him in a missing persons database and was able to connect with his biological mom.
“We interviewed his mom and we went with her to Hart Island,” Escarce said. “I think going there made Neil’s mom feel more at peace with sort of how things had ended up.”
Listen to the first episode of the eight-part series “The Unmarked Graveyard: Stories from Hart Island” on Spotify, Apple or wherever you get your podcasts. Subsequent episodes drop every Thursday through Nov. 16 and will also be re-broadcast on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”
Reach Camille Botello at [email protected]. For more coverage, follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @bronxtimes