11.20.13_feat

Rare photographs of Hart Island, New York’s potter’s field

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

Off-limit to the public for over 35 years, Hart Island — a mile-long island off the eastern coast of the Bronx — has remained one of New York City’s most closely guarded secrets.  It is the home of New York’s “potter’s field,” for those who can’t afford to pay for burial, or whose identity is unknown.

Since 1976, Hart Island has been operated and maintained by the Department of Corrections, which transports inmates from Rikers Island to dig and fill the graves — as many as 2,000 new ones each year, organized into 70 foot long plots that can hold about 150 adults each, or 1000 children. Somewhere between 850,000 to 900,000 poor, homeless, or forgotten people are buried there, making it the largest public cemetery in the world.  Yet , aside from the inmates working there, only a very few have ever visited this burial ground.

One obvious reason is that until recently, the Department of Corrections restricted access to relatives in possession of a death certificate. But there is another factor at work as well: in life as well as in death, the mainly indigent and anonymous people who are buried on Hart Island are all too easily overlooked. Photographer Claire Yaffa has devoted her career to focusing attention on the lives of neglected individuals, especially children.  In the 1990’s, she embarked on a decade-long project to document the fate of a growing number of “crack” babies born with HIV/AIDs, most of whom did not live to adulthood.  Many of these abandoned children were buried at Hart Island, and in 1991 Yaffa was granted the rare opportunity to photograph some burials there.  Her images, held at N-YHS in the Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, provide a powerful memorial to a few of history’s forgotten children, and a singular glimpse of one of New York’s least-visited sites.

Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290
Claire Yaffa Children With Aids Photograph Collection, PR 290

 

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Comments

    • says

      Hello I was on Hart Island from 1968 to 1970 part of Phoenix House. I have have tried to get info and photos from that period on the Island. I know before I left in 1970 we had a International Festival. I also remember we had a resident that took photos and that that was his job. I contacted Mitch Rosenthal about 3 years ago about this. He told me no records were ever kept… that the Department of Corrections held most of it. I was sent from Rikers Island after doing a year for a drug charge. There so much history to be told. I remember decorating the old chapel into a Disco during on of out first open houses. Chief Expediter at the time and lived in the Main building were the offices were located. I had 2 LEs while there so I did learn from my experiences.

  1. Lynne says

    We were offered to have our full-term stillborn son buried on Hart Island. I am so happy that we had other options. He is “home” in the memorial garden of the church we were married in. I can go visit his grave whenever I want. He has a headstone that has his name. He isn’t in a shallow grave with a thousand other babies. We are lucky that we had the means to bury our boy where we did. I feel for the parents who were not able to do as we did. I think of them and their babies often.

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