Update on April 14, 2020: Hart Island is back in the news for the most tragic of reasons: It’s currently being used as a burial ground for victims of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the time since this post was first published, control of Hart Island was transferred to New York City’s Department of Parks and burials are no longer handled by inmates from Rikers Island. In a recent interview, Melinda Hunt, who founded the Hart Island Project to support families of people buried there, describes the evolving view of Hart Island, which has become, in her view, “a meaningful place in a dark time.”
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.
This post is by Susan Kriete, Archivist, November 20, 2013.