New Mass Grave (1992)
From Melinda Hunt's book Hart Island
Since 1991, I have had a virtual studio on New York City’s most invisible 100 acres. While it seems incredible that there could be anything invisible in the media capital of the world, Hart Island represents the quintessential place of eternal anonymity, containing the remains of one-tenth of the city’s population, reaffirming Jacob Riis’ 1890 estimation that one in ten New Yorkers are buried in a potter’s field.
When I first started researching and visiting Hart Island, the small island on the eastern edge of the Bronx in the Long Island Sound and the city’s public cemetery, I thought it was an anomaly. I have now come to understand it as a representation of something that, as a culture, we choose to overlook. As an artist, my inquiry into the island’s history and culture is to show the invisible—not for its shock value, but for the improbability of something becoming so buried in a city where everything feels so public and available.
The Hart Island Project, my body of multimedia work about the island, reveals a longing for contact that is expressed in a variety of forms over time. People assume that those buried on Hart Island are unwanted or unaccounted for. I have found just the opposite to be true. People contact me almost daily for help to relocate friends, to visit, and to disinter those who are buried there. In The Hart Island Project, death is seen through the lenses of many generations and as an affirmation of life. People journey to Hart Island to reconnect with someone lost, often babies that no one ever knew. This is a life-affirming rather than a dark experience for three out of the four characters in my film, Hart Island: An American Cemetery. The character whose story remains unresolved is a homicide victim, Rose Lorencz, who was buried for 20 years as “Unknown White Female.” Her family does not make the journey to Hart Island.
Hart Island has been in use as a potter’s field since 1869, soon after the end of the American Civil War. During the war, it was used as a disciplinary camp for Union soldiers; later it became a prison for captured Confederates after the 1863 Battle of Gettysburg. Today there are more than three quarters of a million people buried in mass graves on Hart Island. It is the densest and largest cemetery in America. Intact mass graves go back only to 1980; earlier graves have been re-used. Hart Island is largely inaccessible to the public because it is operated from within the prison system. Until recently, burial records were kept exclusively on the island. Earlier this year, Bill Dean, President of Volunteers for Legal Service, and I met with the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) and persuaded new Deputy Commissioner Stephen Morello to keep duplicate copies of burial records on Riker’s Island.
Inmates During Burial at Hart Island (1992)
From Melinda Hunt's book Hart Island
Hart Island was not always used exclusively as a potter’s field. Up until 1976 a series of reform-oriented institutions occupied the central and southern portions of Hart Island. Since 1976 Hart Island has been fully maintained by the Department of Correction (DOC) as an overflow facility for the Riker’s Island prison. Inmates perform the daily burials on weekday mornings. They travel to Hart Island by bus and leave again soon after lunch.
I first started going to Hart Island in November of 1991, on the 100th anniversary of Jacob Riis’s first photograph. He chose Hart Island for his first image and describes the scene in his famous book, How the Other Half Lives. I invited the photographer Joel Sternfeld to collaborate and we began to photograph the island using the same 8”x10” format as Riis. Using old technology, we entered Hart Island more slowly. The Correction Officers would tire of watching us set up the view camera. We were largely left alone after the first couple of visits. We took two or three photographs each visit, and traveled to Hart Island once a month. The process took three years.
Hart Island was much different than I had imagined it to be. I was not expecting beauty. Naturally, that is what I discovered in the least developed large parcel of real estate in New York City. I was not expecting to find a caring community on Hart Island. The correction officers work in teams that don’t change very often. There have been three teams since 1991. Small memorials and offerings appear spontaneously across the island. The inmates wrote about their work as penance and rehabilitation. On two occasions, I went to Hart Island to collect inmate writings. I was not expecting to become a link between a community that buries the dead and a community worldwide that is in search of people buried on Hart Island.
Between 1976 and 1994 it was possible for researchers, but not relatives of the buried, to visit Hart Island. I went there, at first, as a researcher rather than an artist. Then I started to make art with materials collected on Hart Island. I posted a notice at the Municipal Archives that I was looking for people who had family buried on Hart Island. One woman, Vicki Pavia, contacted me expressing an interest in visiting on the anniversary of her baby’s fortieth birthday. In 1994, Vicki was the first relative that I took to Hart Island. It marked the beginning of a series of policy reforms whereby I gained access to Hart Island for different groups of people as part of The Hart Island Project. But, in every facet of The Hart Island Project there have been denials and obstacles.
Still from the film
Hart Island: An American Cemetery (2007)
Directed by Melinda Hunt
Arnie Charnick spreading his parents' ashes on Hart Island
In 1993 I designed a public artwork with Margot Lovejoy (Sternfeld was initially involved but later withdrew) titled Just Outside the City for City Hall that was to be produced by the Public Art Fund. The purpose of the project was to reconnect the current potter’s field with a small portion of what was then “The Old Negroes Burial Ground.” After approval, the permit for Just Outside the City was suddenly withdrawn because members of what would become the African Burial Ground Steering Committee did not want me and my collaborator—both white women—to present work that addressed the present-day manifestation of the same type of burial performed by almost exclusively by black men in prison. The Public Art Fund ultimately withdrew from the project. Although the American Civil Liberties Union picked up the case and reversed the permit withdrawal, the New York Times refused to publish news of a settlement in my favor and few people in the art world were speaking to me. From the censorship of Just Outside the City, I gained the quintessential Hart Island experience—that of crossing over to anonymity. I had to learn how to integrate this denial into my work process.
For example, I was having a difficult time gaining permission to take a video camera onto Hart Island to accompany Arnie Charnick, a character who chose to have his brother buried there. Arnie wanted to visit in order to spread the ashes of his mother, who had never been able to visit her son’s gravesite. It took three years to gain permission for Arnie to go to Hart Island and participate in my film. While I was looking for a lawyer to negotiate with the DOC, Arnie’s father was killed in a car accident. The result was that when I called Arnie to let him know that we had a green light, he told me it was time for a family reunion. He was going to spread both parents’ ashes on Hart Island. The initial denial allowed for full resolution.
A few months later, in April 2005, the family of Rose Lorencz contacted me. I had been told over and over that it was not possible for a body to be retrieved after burial of more than ten years, but Rose was disinterred in 2002 after being buried for 20 years. It was through denial at many levels that the last character in my film—Rose, the saddest, most disturbing and unresolved Hart Island story I encountered—emerged. What I hope the film reveals, however, is that people do care about those buried on Hart Island.
An aerial view of Hart Island
Shortly after completing Hart Island: An American Century, I was working with a man from Houston named Shawn Sheridan who had traced his grandfather and father to Hart Island. It turns out that the records pertaining to his grandfather were burned in a fire on Hart Island and those of his father’s burial were somehow missing by 2006, although they were presented in court a year earlier.
I met with David Rankin, a Freedom of Information Law specialist who suggested requesting all Hart Island burial records from 1985 to the present. His reason was that the DOC could not claim to have displaced 50,000 records. Just under a month ago, on November 9, the DOC called Rankin’s office with the news that they are willing to copy 1,600 pages, which adds up to 49,400 burials at 38 entries per page. I am getting the records.
This turn of events happened just before Shawn was scheduled to come to visit Hart Island. During his visit, which was the first time for me that a DOC commissioner had been present, I was told that the city is interested in creating a searchable database of the island’s records. In the end, my efforts show the value of persevering in spite of initial denials. I got nothing on first request. The Hart Island Project is about making an invisible 100 acres and one-tenth of the population visible. I have a feeling that I will get the records at the exact moment that a searchable database appears on the Department of Correction website. I am hoping this turns out to be true so that I can spend my time making art instead of data entries with the records. Either way, both will happen. Since 1991, I have been patiently working with the DOC and they have put up with me. City officials know that giving me the records is the same as showing them to everyone. On American Thanksgiving 2007, I wrote a thank you note to Deputy Commissioner Morello, on behalf of everyone.
Hart Island: An American Cemetery is a NYFA Fiscally Sponsored project. The film will screen in the NewFilmmakers Series at Anthology Film Archives in New York on March 19 at 6 pm.
A video diptych and blog can be accessed at the New York Times’ City Room: