Dear City Council Committee Members: thank you for the opportunity to testify. My name is Moses Gates and I am the Vice President for Housing and Neighborhood Planning at Regional Plan Association.
Regional Plan Association wholeheartedly endorses all four bills which are introduced.
Regarding Intro 0906 to transfer jurisdiction and control over Hart Island to the Department of Parks and Recreation: This transfer is long overdue. It should be self-evident that the Department of Correction is not the proper jurisdictional entity for 131 acres of open space which house no correctional facilities, and is not the proper entity to conduct public burials and manage a public cemetery. Transferring jurisdiction of the island will enable a proper examination of the future of Hart Island and public burials.
The Department of Correction’s job and mission is to provide for the care, custody, and control of persons accused of crimes or convicted and sentenced to one year or less of jail time. This is a necessary job, and one for which the Department has developed certain security protocols. These protocols do not in any way, shape or form translate into those necessary or proper for people visiting either the graves of loved ones, or simply public open space in general.
The complete transfer of jurisdiction should done according to a timeline which allows for a smooth and efficient transition. It is imperative, however, that the full completion of this process is done within this current administration, and also allows for enough time to develop and fully implement a new transportation, engagement, and open space plan for Hart Island within this current administration as well.
Regarding Intro 0909 to develop a transportation plan for public travel: no matter the future of Hart Island, a more accessible transportation system is a must. First, it is quite simply a shame to leave 131 acres of public open space largely inaccessible, and anyone who has been to Hart Island can testify as to the value of the island simply as a place to experience as parkland. And second, the cemetery is the resting place of an estimated one million people, and countless New Yorkers have loved one buried on the island. Beyond this, Hart Island – similar to Greenwood, Woodlawn, the African Burial Ground, and many other final resting places in the five boroughs – also holds great meaning to New York as a whole, and to many people beyond those with loved ones on the island. Our public burial ground should, at minimum, have the same accessibility as our city’s private burial grounds, the vast majority of which are open at least six days a week for several hours a day.
Regarding Intro 1559 to establish an office to provide support, assistance and information to individuals who have lost a loved one: Again, this is long overdue, and the minimum standard the city
should be meeting when it comes to support, assistance, and information for our public cemetery is that of our large private cemeteries, almost all of which have dedicated staff for these purposes.
Regarding Intro 1580 to establish a task force to study public burials: Hart Island may well be the appropriate place for future public burials, especially considering the space available and the personnel and infrastructure that will be needed to service the current gravesites regardless of future plans for the island. However, not examining other possible solutions simply because of inertia is foolhardy. Indigent burials have substantially declined in recent decades as identities can be better determined and next-of-kin more easily found. Out of the over 50,000 people who die in New York City each year, only about 3% are buried publicly on Hart Island. The City should examine whether these burials could easily be accommodated at another more accessible cemetery in the city or nearby. There are countless cemeteries both within the five boroughs and nearby which are more accessible than Hart Island. There are also private or nonprofit organizations which currently conduct burials, and may be the correct entities to contract with to conduct our public burials, as opposed to having a government agency do it directly.
In all cases, however, whether on Hart Island or at another location civilians should be employed to do our public burials as opposed to our current system of inmate labor escorted by the Department of Correction. This would also undoubtedly help the City’s budget, as inmates need to be accompanied by several Department of Correction staff and be securely transported to and from Rikers Island by bus to City.
In conclusion, we would like to applaud City Council for taking up this issue, acknowledge the incredible hard work of the advocates for Hart Island and the families and loved ones of those buried there, thank and recognize the people who have done the work of burying the dead and maintaining the island and its gravesites, and commend the Department of Correction both for its decades of dedicated stewardship of Hart Island and for agreeing that it is now time to move on. We look forward to a more accessible and open Hart Island, and better support for the loved ones of those who have had a public burial, as well as those who will need one in the future, and stand ready to assist the City in this process in any way we can.