Advocates Call for Expanded Access to Hart Island

City Council
The City Council Parks Committee discussed inaccessible parks in a hearing on Dec. 1. (The Ink/Kawala Xie)

Community advocates, U.S war veterans and City Council members called on the Parks and Recreation Department Thursday to increase efforts to make Hart Island more accessible to the public.

In a hearing of the City Council Parks Committee led by chair Mark Levine, council members considered whether and how to expand access to several city properties that are currently closed or have restricted access to the public.

The properties discussed included Washington Square Arch in the Village, North Brother Island in the East River and Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Riverside Park in Manhattan.

But the main focus was on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, which has long been the burial site of unidentified and indigent people and unclaimed bodies of soldiers from U.S. wars.

Access to the island has been limited for many years. The City Department of Corrections, which currently manages and maintains the island, only allows family members of people buried there to visit once a month. The general public can only get to a gazebo area near the ferry landing on the island. Pre-registration is required for both groups.

“I feel that everyone should get the opportunity to visit their loved ones’ gravesites,” Elaine Joseph, 62, a veteran who served in the U.S Navy for 23 years and whose daughter is buried on the island, testified at the hearing. Joseph described being accompanied to the gravesite by a Department of Correction officer and criticized the procedures required to get to the island.

Herbert Sweat, 67, a Native American, said in an interview that gaining public access to Hart Island matters to him personally not only because his mother-in-law and one of his twin daughters are buried there, but also because he wants to see a monument built there to honor the U.S Colored Troops who had trained on the island during the Civil War.

Prohibiting public access to the island is “to take away our legacy,” said Sweat, a Vietnam War veteran. “This is what propels us to be who we are.”

Thursday was World AIDS Day, and in her hearing testimony, J.P. Borum, 52, a New York University writing professor, highlighted the importance of honoring thousands of AIDS victims who are buried on Hart Island.

Borum has a personal connection with someone who was sent to the island after he died from AIDS two years ago.

“His family abandoned him because he was gay,” she said in an interview. “There’s a notion that people who are buried out there are the indigent unknowns.”

At the hearing, City Council member Elizabeth Crowley questioned the parks department about its efforts to help expand access to the island and urged more coordination between city agencies to make Hart Island more accessible. She complained about restrictions placed on people coming from disadvantaged backgrounds who want to visit their loved ones on the island. And for people who are interested in knowing the history of the island, access is denied too, she said.

Matt Drury, the parks department’s director of government relations, said the department is helping the corrections department with plantings on the island and working to “make the experience more enjoyable for visitors.”