It may come as a surprise, but New York City is an old pro at transforming burial grounds into parks.

Long before the folk singers, chess players and skate rats moved in and it rose to prominence as a counterculture congregation spot for those crusading against “the man" (and before that, Robert Moses), Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village was a rural cemetery, not yet part of the city proper, where New Yorkers killed by early 19th century outbreaks of yellow fever were interred. Rumor is, around 20,000 souls were never disinterred and remain buried under the beloved and heavily trafficked park.

The same goes for Madison Square Park. Long before the era of never-ending Shake Shack queues, the Flatiron District’s most bustling green space was an 18th century potter’s field — a place where the indignant were laid to rest. Fifteen blocks north, Bryant Park served very much the same function up until the 1840s when the burial ground was decommissioned and the human remains were relocated elsewhere.

And then there’s Hart Island.

Officially part of the Bronx, this 130-acre landmass located just east of City Island — and Rat Island — is best known for spectacular views of Long Island Sound, a smattering of creepy crumbling buildings and tens of thousands of unmarked mass graves.

Hart Island

A mile long and only about a quarter-mile wide, Hart Island is located just east of larger City Island in the Bronx.(Photo: Doc Searis/flickr)

Home to what’s still very much an active potter’s field, Hart Island is the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. The island has held many facilities over the years including a boot camp for delinquent boys, a drug rehab center, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a Nike missile site and an insane asylum. Since 1869 it has also been where the city sends its unclaimed and unidentified bodies (and dismembered body parts). A large majority of those buried on Hart Island include stillborn infants and young children along with foreign tourists, the homeless and the loved ones of New Yorkers who simply can’t afford a private burial. More than 1 million souls are buried anonymously on the island with about 1,500 bodies arriving annually.

Once used as a prison itself including a short Civil War-era stint as a POW camp, interments on Hart Island are performed by inmates from nearby Rikers Island, New York’s notorious primary jail complex. Today, these prison laborers are paid 65 cents an hour to bury the dead.

Following decades of attempts at reform and slightly improved access, including a monthly ferry that shuttles family of the deceased from City Island to a small gazebo "set aside for reflection" at the Hart Island ferry dock (visits to the actual grave sites are still verboten), sweeping changes are afoot at this strange and sad spit of land.

Late last week, Bronx Community Board 10 gave its blessing to proposed legislation that would transfer control of the island — pop culture junkies may know it best from the 2001 Michael Douglas/Brittany Murphy thriller “Don’t Say a Word” even though no filming took place there — from the Department of Correction to the Department of Parks and Recreation. If the bill, re-introduced by City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley after a failed attempt in 2012, is approved and the transfer is carried out, at least a small chunk of Hart Island would be christened as one of New York City’s newest public parks, joining illustrious green spaces like Washington Square Park, Bryant Park, Madison Square Park and several other potter’s field-to-park conversions.

Although the transfer of Hart Island to the Parks Department is a small step closer, it’s still unclear what exactly this dramatic switch-up will involve.

Hart Island

Hart Island is home to several abandoned buildings including a boys' reformatory and a TB sanatorium. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Will the island’s wealth of decrepit historic buildings be razed to make for way for a harder-to-get-to (and decidedly more macabre) version of Governors Island, the similarly sized military base-turned-popular summertime weekend getaway just south of Manhattan in the Upper New York Bay?

Will the business of burying bodies continue on the south end of the island, where most of the mass graves are located, or will it halt altogether under the Park Department’s jurisdiction?

Will a park that’s home to more than a million human remains and a history of illness and imprisonment prove to be a tough sell for solace-seeking, outdoor recreation-hungry New Yorkers?

Has the entire island been stigmatized beyond repair?

And does the Parks Department even want jurisdiction of Hart Island considering that it has declined control of it in the past?

These questions remain mostly unanswered. However, if anything, removing control from the Department of Correction and lifting Hart Island's technical status as a prison will likely result in more frequent ferry service and ease the ironclad restrictions on gravesite visits. It would provide a sense of much-needed closure to hundreds upon hundreds of families with loved ones buried on the island.

Hart Island circa 1890

Hart Island, circa 1890. (Wikimedia Commons)

"Every New Yorker should have the right to visit, without having to go through the (Department of Correction) process,” Councilwoman Crowley explains. “My goal is to open up more of the island, and make it more visitor-friendly.”

A separate class-action lawsuit filed by the New York City Civil Liberties Union is calling for the Department of Correction to allow access to Hart Island’s burial sites.

On top of the lawsuits and proposed legislation, there's also been the recent launch of a haunting, gorgeously produced interactive website from artist and activist Melinda Hunt of the Hart Island Project, a grassroots advocacy group pushing for continued reform and visitors rights on the island. To even set foot on the island, relatives of the deceased currently must submit to a byzantine process via the Office of Constituent Services.

Unveiled last December, the Hart Island Project’s new website not only tells the grim but fascinating history of the island, but allows users to locate the exact gravesite locations of the 62,200 individuals buried on the island since 1980 using global positioning data obtained through the Freedom of Information Law. Once friends and loved ones locate an individual’s grave through the digital database, they can post photographs and written remembrances to the Hart Island Project’s Traveling Cloud Museum — a virtual cemetery of sorts described as “an attempt to preserve the histories of who is buried for present and future generations.”

“It’s gorgeous in an otherworldly kind of way. What is really problematic is that it’s hidden, that it is controlled by the prison system and that we are ashamed of it,” Hunt told Bloomberg. Although, for now, visitors are strictly forbidden from venturing beyond the aforementioned wooden gazebo, Hunt believes that the addition of the Traveling Cloud Museum, which adds an element of creative storytelling to the raw data, will enable friends and relatives to remember the deceased as more than just a name attached to a point on an online map.

entrance to Hart Island

Entrance to the once-a-month limited-access ferry to Hart Island. (Photo: Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)

Freshly minted parkland aside, Hunt believes that burials on Hart Island, a place she refers to as “New York City’s family tomb" where "we don’t always get along, but we do live and die and are buried close to one another," could continue under the auspices of the Parks Department but in a more respectful manner. She writes in a 2013 op-ed for the New York Times:

With recent technologies, and fewer burials, it should be possible for Hart Island to be cleaned up to become our newest park, restoring and reclaiming the landscape for public access and moving away from unseemly mass burials. GPS technology already invisibly marks grave sites; future burials could be scattered individually across the landscape and tracked similarly. Under Parks Department management, every unclaimed New Yorker could be given a green burial and a unique location, and every visitor would have a view of the Long Island Sound.
Spend some time at the Hart Island Project website to learn more about the island — and what’s being done by folks like Hunt and Crowley to change it for the better. You can also peruse the names of those interred and learn more about their unique stories. Among them is the first child to die of AIDS in New York City, who, unlike other children buried on the island, was laid to rest in an individual grave instead of a massive communal plot. Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan of Gizmodo has also written a wonderful firsthand account of an incredibly rare visit to Hart Island along with a small handful of other journalists, the first sanctioned press trip since the island was deemed as off-limits in the 1980s.

Do you think the proposed transfer could work? Have you had the chance to visit Hart Island in decades past?

Via [NY Daily News]

Related on MNN:

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.