One aspect of New York that always amazes me is forgotten property. New York – and especially Manhattan – feels overwhelmingly like a city that has no secrets. It’s like every inch has been studied and cataloged by developers, photographed by tourists, written on by graffiti artists, trampled by residents, etc., etc., etc. Obviously, there’s a lot more to see than is readily apparent, as I try to show on my blog, but usually it’s a hidden quirk here, or an interesting gem there. You’re not going to suddenly stumble on some long-disused alleyway, for example, as there isn’t a single alley in the city that hasn’t been shot in literally hundreds of times by film crews.
It’s funny how once you get outside of the city limits, however, that extreme level of exposure quickly tapers off, even as close as Yonkers. Today, I was clicking around Wikipedia, and somehow came across the entry on the Pelham Islands, a group of islands located in western Long Island Sound. Amazingly enough, only City Island, part of the Bronx, is populated – the rest are empty.
Well, that’s not entirely true for Hart Island. There are no living residents on Hart Island, but there are quite a lot of dead: about 750,000, to be exact, making it the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world.
Hart Island has had a very, very colorful history. Since the 1800′s, it has been home to a workhouse for delinquent boys, a hospital, an insane asylum for women, prisons, a Civil War internment camp, a reformatory, and a missile base. Many of the structures are still standing to this day (though in severely dilapidated states), including parts of the asylum, a stable, a theater, a laundry, workhouses, the missile silos, and a church.
Hell, there are still knives in the old butcher’s shop:
Hart Island (allegedly called that due to its heart-shape) continues to be used to this day as a potter’s field – a cemetery for the unknown and indigent. About 2,000 people are buried here each year from NYC. Riker’s Island inmates perform the burial labor, stacking pine coffins in two rows, 3 high and 25 across, then filling in the plot and marking it with a single concrete marker.
The first child to die of AIDS in New York City is buried in the only single grave on Hart Island, with a concrete marker that reads SC (special child) B1 (Baby 1) 1985.
Unfortunately, the island is off-limits to anyone except those who can prove they have relatives buried here. A ferry runs out of City Island. The reasons for this are pretty obvious (among others, the explorers who took this picture found grenades inside the church!).
For those who can settle on pictures, there are two great sources. First, for a virtual tour of the island, the urban explorers over at Kingston Lounge took an unauthorized trip to the island and took some really, really amazing photographs. Frankly, they put my site to shame. Check them out immediately!
One picture in particular really amazes me – patients at the women’s asylum would participate in occupational therapy as part of their treatment. Apparently, this consisted of making leather shoes. See the junk at the bottom of this picture? It’s actually hundreds of leather shoes, still in great condition.
The second source, Hart Island website, run by Melissa Hunt, has been helping relatives get information about those buried on the island, as well as making historical information available to the public since 1994. There’s a great section of photographs, including some of the inmates at work.
A single tour of the island was conducted in 2000 at the request of local residents, and it’s extremely unfortunate that it doesn’t happen more often. These buildings will never be saved; the island is a cemetery, and it’s not only the corpses that are left to decay. Those who would like to see it, up close and respectfully, are historians and photographers, not vandals, and I’m not sure why groups of 10 or 20 couldn’t be that much trouble to accommodate.
What really amazes me is that an organization like the City Museum of New York doesn’t get off its ass and grab some of the irreplaceable items left on the island before they’re either stolen or succumb to the elements. There are bleachers from Ebbet’s Field, for Christ’s sake!
Governor’s Island is giving more and more tours, and maybe something similar will someday happen on Hart Island. In the meantime, however, if any of you readers happens to have an inside connection that might get me a quick tour of the island, please contact me!! I’m sadly way too much of a wuss to get on a boat and sneak onto the island.
PS – Not everyone buried here is unkown; some were simply those whose bodies were unclaimed after they died. This included author Dawn Powell, whose building we coincidentally posted about earlier in the week (Elephants on East 10th Street).