This story is a part of an ongoing collaboration between Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and THE CITY. Reporters on this project include: Haidee Chu, Akshay Desai, Rajaa Elidrissi, Jacob Geanous, Téa Kvetenadze, Cassidy Jensen, Josh Merchant, Savannah Tryens-Fernandes and Megan Zerez.
If all goes according to plan, Hart Island, the city’s public cemetery, will become the site of a memorial for New Yorkers who died of COVID-19 as well as thousands of others lost to the Spanish flu, AIDS and other mass casualty events.
Details are still being ironed out, but supporters hope that work on the memorial will begin in earnest once Hart Island is placed under the authority of the city’s Parks and Recreation Department on July 1, 2021.
The island, home of the largest mass grave of its kind in the United States, currently is under the jurisdiction of the city Department of Correction.
City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has signaled he is open to a Hart Island memorial, with his office saying Thursday he “looks forward to discussing the details” and hearing from the “communities hit hardest by the pandemic,” which has claimed the lives of over 24,000 New Yorkers so far.
Councilmember Mark Levine (D-Manhattan), chair of the health committee, and the speaker’s office are on board with a proposal to build a memorial visitors can frequent.
A bill Levine introduced in July to pass so work can begin.
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office would then review the legislation and consider “the most meaningful way to honor the lives of those we lost to the virus,” spokesperson Avery Cohen said. She stressed however that the City currently has no plans for a memorial on Hart Island.
The city has been working with social service providers and burial assistance programs to open the 131-acre island to the general public following a law signed last December that called on the city Department of Transportation to develop a plan with the parks department.
Officials are planning ferries to transport visitors, and walkways for pedestrian traffic.
And in at least one scenario, Hart Island could be transformed into a federally protected national park.
The Parks and Recreation Department cautioned Thursday that “at this time, we do not have plans for COVID-related memorials on parkland anywhere in the city.”
But those charged with plotting out the island’s future are largely in agreement: It should be opened to the public and some kind of memorial should be built.
‘A Place of Reverence’
Ever since it was established as a public cemetery in 1869, Hart Island has been a cold and forbidding place, overgrown with vegetation.
Lying at the western end of Long Island Sound, just across from The Bronx, there’s limited access to the island. Reservations are required for visitors, who were allowed only after a class-action lawsuit by families with loved ones buried there was settled in 2015.
This spring, harrowing images of potter’s field burials there became emblematic of how coronavirus deaths had overwhelmed New York — and a symbol of the pandemic’s disproportionate toll on the city’s neediest.
The Hart Island interment process, which was used during the Civil War, allowed the city to quickly bury bodies when funeral homes were overburdened by coronavirus deaths.
“People weren’t sure that [Hart Island] was important enough until COVID-19,” said Melinda Hunt, director of The Hart Island Project, a nonprofit that maintains a database of burials and advocates for the island.
“I think COVID-19 brings it into focus, as we have these health care disasters and what happens particularly to low income people of color,” she added. “I think we haven’t looked at that before and I think that’s quintessentially Hart Island.”
City officials hope the memorial could be open to the public as soon as a year after the pandemic ends.
“It would shine a light on the New Yorkers who are buried there, and for once, it wouldn’t be treating Hart Island as this security risk, or a place of shame as often it has been treated in the past, but a place of reverence,” said Levine , who has led the process for the creation of the memorial.
‘A Spirit of Reform’
The city’s Human Resources Administration, which will now oversee Hart Island burial operations, pledged in a statement to bring a “spirit of reform to end-of-life planning.”
Officials added that the agency plans to find a contractor to handle burials and determine how many more bodies can be interned there.
In the meantime, a temporary Hart Island memorial exclusively for family members, likely modeled after the solemn display of ribbons featuring the names of COVID-19 victims at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, is being discussed. According to Levine, it would not be constructed until July 1, 2021, at the earliest.
The island’s transformation into a full-fledged memorial will likely take years.
The City Council is preparing to form a citywide COVID memorial commission similar to the one that helped plan the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. If that experience is any guide, delays and dissension are likely to arise.
Some historians and artists are already wondering whether the city is moving too quickly without a clear-eyed plan — in the midst of a surge in coronavirus cases. Some of the open questions: whom to memorialize, how best to tell their stories and what to say about the still-evolving pandemic.
Michele Bogart, a public art historian and former vice president of the city’s Public Design Commission, noted the city does not yet have a complete picture of the pandemic to ensure the memorial fully represents those who have died.
“I fear that there’s a lot of race, class and even gender politics that are not necessarily going to be constructive for something that’s supposed to be healing,” she said. “The time is not to do it. The time is to think about it.”
A Million Burials
Hart Island, which has been a site of more than one million burials, made international headlines in April when drone footage captured workers placing pine coffins in 50-foot trenches.
This year will go down as the busiest on Hart Island since the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, far outpacing the AIDS crisis, according to a data analysis of public records, Department of Correction data and interviews with city officials by Columbia Journalism School’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and THE CITY.
Some 2,225 people have been buried since January, according to city data, and hundreds more burials are expected in the coming months. That far eclipses the nearly 1,400 adult burials in 1988, when the AIDS epidemic was at its peak, but far less than the over 22,000 during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.
Hundreds of bodies are still being stored in refrigerated trucks and at offsite locations, including about 650 bodies at a disaster morgue set up in April on the 39th Street Pier in Sunset Park.
Many who rest in Hart Island have family who would love to be able to easily visit.
Lenore Corcoran died of COVID-19 on April 18 at Parker Jewish Rehab Center in Glen Oaks. She was buried on Hart Island after her two daughters got a call from the Queens County administrator’s office and they opted for a public burial.
Corcoran, a retired middle and junior high school English teacher, had suffered a stroke in 2016 and moved to Parker Jewish in 2018 after developing dementia. A Queens funeral home told Corcoran’s daughters it would cost $2,000 to store her body and $3,000 to cremate her.
“My mother is just above it, we didn’t need a box of ashes to know who she was,” said Nancy Guzzetta, one of Corcoran’s daughters.
Guzzetta, who said she expects to be buried on Hart Island alongside her mother, said she and other family members would like the island to be “an open space and open to the public.”
“I haven’t been there, I wouldn’t even know how I would get there,” Guzzetta said. “But I think there should be a memorial where people can sit and enjoy.”
Costly and Time Consuming
Planning for a COVID-19 memorial on Hart Island began in July when Levine introduced legislation to create a memorial task force. The task force will be formed once the City Council formally approves the project, and it will likely include representatives of the city Parks Commissioner and the Department of Cultural Affairs, as well as of victims’ families.
The commission will explore the complicated artistic and moral aspects of the project, Levine said, and the memorial could incorporate a variety of natural, horticultural and technological elements, similar to the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero. A public City Council hearing is slated for the coming weeks.
There are still open questions about the composition of the memorial task force and the sources of funding for both construction and future maintenance.
Hunt hopes that any memorial will commemorate the island’s long history of burials, and treat those buried there with respect. She sees a temporary memorial as insufficient.
“That’s a Band-Aid in my mind,” said Hunt. “[A permanent memorial] might take a long time but you want to take it on.”
To make the island accessible to the public, several costly and time-consuming fixes will be required, including installing anti-flooding mechanisms and demolishing or securing some unstable and potentially dangerous buildings.
In addition to being a public cemetery, Hart Island was the home of a psychiatric institution, a tuberculosis sanatorium, a boys’ reformatory and a jail. Many of those buildings now lay in hazardous ruins.
Tom Laqueur, a University of California professor and expert on the cultural history of death, said efforts to beautify and increase access to Hart Island are also a form of atonement.
“Not all of these people are bereft and uncared for, but some large number of them just exhausted their human connections,” he said.
So now people, he added, are thinking, “we may not have cared for them while they’re alive, but we need to care for them when they’re dead as much as we can.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to reflect that City Council Speaker Corey Johnson has not officially supported any proposal to build a COVID-19 memorial on Hart Island but is open to the idea; and to make clear that the city is not currently working on a memorial.
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