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City Asked to Let Families Visit Massive Hart Island Graveyard

By Amy Zimmer | September 27, 2012 7:04am

NEW YORK CITY — Laurie Grant wants to visit the burial site of the stillborn daughter she delivered at Lenox Hill Hospital on July 13, 1993.

So far, she has not been allowed.

The baby was buried on Hart Island, the city’s 101-acre potters’ field — a burial place for unknown people — which sits just east of City Island in the Long Island Sound and is operated by the Department of Correction.

Grant, who was under extreme physical and emotional duress after the cesarean delivery of her daughter 19 years ago, doesn’t remember signing any consent forms for her baby’s grave to be there.

Following nearly two decades of unsuccessful attempts at information gathering from city agencies, she only discovered last year — after learning about a database created by the nonprofit Hart Island Project — that her baby was buried there on Aug. 11, 1994.

Hart Island, which has seen 850,000 burials since the city acquired the land in 1869 and is considered the largest municipal-run graveyard in the world, has been largely abandoned save for the inmates serving short-term sentences, who are bused in from nearby Rikers Island to perform daily burials into mass graves. 

It is very difficult for families to visit the island or even determine if a relative was buried at its cemetery.

Grant would be permitted to visit a gazebo on the island, which is nowhere near the burial grounds — and only if she were to come alone, without a cell phone or camera, accompanied by armed correction officers.

“Does a gazebo with prison guards constitute appropriate access to Hart Island?” asked Grant, an OB/Gyn who has since joined the board of the Hart Island Project and has now become a voice for the families of the 27,769 infants buried at the potter’s field between 1981 and 2011.

She plans to speak at a City Council hearing on Thursday addressing legislation that would change the way the DOC provides information about the cemetery and how to visit it.

Besides the many stillborns interred on the island, there are many immigrants, victims of crimes and disease buried there, according to Melinda Hunt, an artist who launched the Hart Island Project website in 2009, nearly 10 years after publishing a book about the island. 

There are also homeless people, tourists and others buried after their families couldn't be found or cannot afford to pay for burials elsewhere.

The bills, introduced by City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, of Queens, would require the DOC to make its electronic database of people buried on Hart Island since 1977 available on its website. It would also require the agency to put its Hart Island visitation policy in writing, post it on its website and make it available to anyone requesting a copy.

Hunt was glad the issue was getting some attention from elected officials, but she was concerned that the legislation did not go far enough.

“I’m not sure the Department of Correction has a database,” she said, offering that the city should save the cost of building a new database when it could simply purchase the Hart Island Project’s, which is currently behind a pay wall, and could have it up-and-running for the public within a week.

She had 45 volunteers — including retired corporate secretaries — working for three years on the database that includes roughly 60,500 names from 1980 to 2011.  Her group recently received records from 1977 to 1980 and estimates that would yield another 5,000 or so names.

“I feel like if we’re already doing it, why spend tax dollars on another database when you can get ours?" Hunt asked, adding that the legislation did not provide any deadline for when the DOC database would have to appear online.

Nor did it address one of the main concerns of her group. 

They have questioned whether the DOC is the best agency to take visitors to gravesites and would rather that role fall under the Parks Department's purview. Park rangers would be able to issue tickets but would not be carrying guns like DOC officials.

“These people are asking the city to provide closure and spiritual solace,” she said. “That’s not a service of the DOC. We’re paying these guys’ salaries and pensions to do a dangerous job, not to take mothers of babies to a picnic shelter.”

The DOC did not immediately respond for comment.

The Hart Island Project, which worked on a series of Freedom of Information Law requests to the city to get the names of the people buried there to create the database, has located relatives for 512 families. Another 2,500 have registered to search the database, Hunt said.

“As a ritual, as a rite, this is something people do,” Grant said about wanting to visit graves. “It’s part of our society.

"In some sense everybody needs peace. [But ] people don’t know about the island. It’s been kept in the dark like a dirty little secret."

Like many other little islands around New York City, Hart Island had been used for institutions, such as an extension of a prison workhouse for boys on Rikers Island, hospitals and barracks from the Civil War that were turned over to the city, an insane asylum and a home for victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1870, Hunt’s 1998 book explains.

The city charter that assigned DOC and the Department of Welfare — a now-defunct agency  — to oversee the island has never been changed.

Hunt’s group has criticized the DOC for its lack of upkeep of the island. Photos pictured here, taken some 20 years after Hunt’s, by Ian Ference, who writes the Kingson Lounge blog, showed that not much had changed in the interim.

The island was still in a state of disrepair.

Councilwoman Crowely had also introduced legislation in April that would transfer jurisdiction of the island to the Parks Department, which would be considered at a subsequent hearing.

"The city has a solemn responsibility to provide accurate and easily accessible information about the people buried at Hart Island," Crowley said about the legislation being considered Thursday.

She added: "Ultimately, Hart Island should be fully open to the public."