Hart Island inaccessibility slammed as city considers NYC Parks control

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Hart Island is the site of nearly a milion graves of generations of poor and disenfranchised New Yorkers.
  Photo Credit: Getty Images for Pandora Media/Nicholas Hunt

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and activists slammed the de Blasio administration at a hearing Thursday over what they characterized as a slow motion plan to open up the public gravesite at Hart Island to more visitors and better maintain it.

Visitors to the site of nearly a million graves of generations of poor and disenfranchised New Yorkers must currently go through a Department of Corrections application process before they are allowed to visit with supervised escorts once a month. A memorial gazebo is open to all visitors and gravesites are open to family members only. 

The city has proposed transferring the site’s jurisdiction from DOC to the Parks Department once it chooses a new site for burials. But several council committees, including health parks and transportation, are considering a package of bills that would immediately transfer jurisdiction of Hart Island and improve ferry service to and from the site. 

At the hearing on the legislation, Matt Drury, the director of the government relations for the Parks Department, could not provide a timeline for the city’s plan.

"This is a massive and complicated undertaking. The city wants to make sure this is fully thought out," he said.

Johnson, who visited the island last year and noted it is mostly likely the largest gravesite for victims of the AIDS epidemic, said the city’s proposal could take over a decade. He called on the Parks Department, DOC and the Department of Human Resources to come back to the Council in 30 days with interim solutions for visitors while the bills are being worked on. 

"The public has waited far too long for proper access," he said. 

Melinda Hunt, the founding director of the Hart Island Project, which has been chronicling the stories of the New Yorkers buried in the cemetery, also criticized the city’s proposal for the island. She urged the Council to push forward with its package.

"This will greatly destigmatize the burials and help communities across the region reconcile the deaths of their friends and family members," she said.