City Council votes to reform operations at Hart Island, America’s largest public cemetery

Drone footage of Hart Island. (Hart Island Project)

Council members are working out how to improve upkeep and transportation to the island.

America’s largest public cemetery is a desolate island in The Bronx and jail inmates are digging the graves — but that may not be the case for much longer.

The city’s Potter’s Field on Hart Island has been the final home to over 1 million people who couldn’t be accommodated with proper burials, instead being laid to rest by prisoners making minuscule pay for their agonizing labor.

Loved ones can hardly even visit the public grave due to Hart Island’s lack of accessibility — partially due to security measures in place from the Department of Corrections, which oversees not just inmates but the jurisdiction of the entire island.

Hart Island’s shoreline. (Hart Island Project)

But on Thursday, the New York City Council voted on two resolutions aimed at improving conditions of the currently dilapidated island by a vote of 45-2.

One was to transfer Hart Island from the DOC into the control of the Parks Department, while the other was to expand its public accessibility via ferry service.

One of the only vocal opponents to the plan was East Bronx (and technically Hart Island) Councilman Mark Gjonaj, who voted in opposition.

“Something should have been done a long time ago,” he said in regards for the conditions of the Potter’s Field.

Some of Gjonaj’s uneasiness towards the land transfer to Parks comes from the agency admitting that it did not have the proper assets to manage the open cemetery in 2016.

“Parks still does not have what the funding to handle Hart Island,” he continued.

City Hall sources also say that Parks was reluctant to take Hart Island from the Corrections Department because of graves’ costly maintenance.

Although Brooklyn Councilman Chiam Deutsch did vote in support of the Hart Island plan at a committee level, he turned over to a ‘no’ after expressing concerns about graves being disturbed in ways that would violate various religious customs on Wednesday. That, though has been happening to some degree as waves of erosion have washed remains from Hart Island into the Long Island Sound in past years — an issue that is now being addressed by FEMA, which is providing $13.2 million to restore the island’s shoreline.

Human remains eroding from Hart Island. (Hart Island Project)

As far as getting to Hart Island, the city could add a cemetery stop at existing stations around the city, however, that and other proposed methods will undergo stakeholder study over the next year before a final decision is rendered, Transportation Committee Chair Ydanis Rodriguez said. That method would replace a single ferry that departs from The Bronx’s City Island as the sole public transport to the cemetery.

Gjonaj says he wouldn’t oppose the transit side of the plan as long as there’s a concrete safeguard that would insure that City Island is not the only point of access to Potter’s Field. Though, who would be digging the graves if Parks were to take over Hart Island?

It would likely be privatized, according to Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island project, who’s been a partner to the city on the plan.

Now, a full plan of action is all that remains for the future of the public grave.

Additional reporting by Alejandra O’Connell-Domenech

Alex Mitchell