Hart Island burials taken over by tree landscapers, uprooting families’ hopes for transformation

20 November 2021

The city has brought in a landscaping company with no experience in managing cemeteries or public spaces to help turn Hart Island, the long neglected burial site of thousands of people killed by COVID, into a safe haven for the families and other visitors.

The management contract worries both the leaders of some of New York’s largest cemeteries and the families of those buried on Hart Island, concerned about the fate of city council’s $ 85 million vision to transform the field of the potter in the largest municipal cemetery in the country.

Meanwhile, the city’s parks service plans to keep a former Rikers Island captain who oversaw inmates carrying out emergency burials for pandemic victims in charge of burials.

“In order to restore public confidence, New York City should hire an experienced cemetery to oversee the management of Hart Island,” said Melinda Hunt, president and founder of the Hart Island Project.

Last month, the city’s social services department awarded a three-year, $ 33 million contract to JPL Industries, also known as J. Pizzirusso Landscaping Corp.

“Like visiting a prison”

The new contract coincided with a planned transfer of control of Hart Island – the burial site of more than one million New Yorkers killed by COVID, AIDS and more – from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Parks and Recreation .

This is a step taken by the city council, which in 2019 adopted a law ordering the transfer. The goal: to transform a largely dilapidated potter’s field dating back more than 150 years into a public and easily accessible cemetery.

Visiting the graves of loved ones has proven to be a hardship for people like Elsie Soto, who grew up in social housing in Lower Manhattan and now lives in the Bronx. Soto’s father, Norberto, died of complications from AIDS in the early 1990s, when she was 8 years old.

It took 24 years for Soto and his sister to reach his father’s grave for the first time. “It was very moving,” she said. “I felt like I was visiting a prison instead of visiting my father. I was standing right in the middle of an empty field. My father was not a prisoner and the others were not buried there and they shouldn’t be treated like that. “

David Fleming, the legislative director of the New York State Cemeteries Association, described Hart Island as having “enormous potential” but requiring “significant change” in operations to make it sustainable.

“I have spoken to many industry partners and visited the site and there is still a lot to be done to keep Hart Island running for a very long time including having good administration and technology. modern cemetery, ”said Fleming.

The first step, say those who work in the cemeteries, would be to hire a company experienced in record keeping, burial and exhumation – as well as the management of large public cemeteries and the treatment of visitors and members of family.

‘Knowledge and experience’

“Indefensible” was the word City Council Chairman Corey Johnson used in 2018 to describe extremely limited access and the rules prohibiting jail-type visitors who greeted those who attempted to visit the 130-acre island.

Now the champions of a more open Hart Island say they fear too little is on the way to change. In a presentation to bidders, the Department of Social Services said it was looking for “a qualified cemetery management and operating company or other similarly qualified contractor.”

The agency then awarded the contract to JPL Industries. As it did in an emergency at the height of the pandemic, when the bodies of COVID victims arrived by truck, JPL will continue to manage the remains of New York’s poor.

JPL Industries, contacted several times by phone and email, did not respond to requests for comment.

And while management has shifted to the parks department, the boss in charge of the burial grounds remains the same: Captain Martin F. Thompson, a career correctional officer, who oversaw the search work of Rikers inmates. Island on Hart Island since 2005..

“Captain Thompson’s knowledge and experience with Hart Island is unparalleled in New York City, developed and refined over decades of dedicated service on the island,” said Isaac McGinn, spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, in a press release.

But Hunt cited Thompson’s continued role as a warning sign.

“The purpose of passing a law was to end association with the criminal justice system. From a public relations perspective, putting the same person in charge … is unlikely to convince anyone that things have changed.” , said Hunt.

$ 85 million investment

About 1 in 10 New Yorkers who died from COVID-19 or pandemic-related causes in 2020 were ultimately buried on Hart Island, according to an analysis by Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism and THE CITY based on city ​​data. The number of burials in 2020 was more than double that recorded in 2019.

Of the 3,200 people buried in 2020 and 2021 whose names and other identifying information have been made public, the median age has trended downward from 69 in 2020 to 66 in 2021.

This summer, the Buildings Ministry ordered the emergency demolition of 18 aging buildings on the island at an expected cost of $ 52 million, citing “public safety” – as part of a planned investment of $ 85 million. of dollars.

Soto last visited Hart Island in October and said he had received a nice “haircut”, with lawns mown and new benches.

But Hart Island is still difficult to visit.

It’s hard to get a spot on the twice-monthly visitor ferry, or even a reminder from the Department of Parks and Recreation. Only people with close ties to those buried there can request a visit and must sign a liability waiver. Ferries run out of bathrooms, and once there, the island can seem like a desolate place.

The operators of some of New York’s large private cemeteries declined to be named, but said they were relying on inexperienced contractors.

JPL Industries first worked on Hart Island during the height of the pandemic, when the Parks Department hired the company for $ 1.64 million on an emergency basis to bury thousands of COVID-19 victims in mass plots. His new three-year contract includes an option to renew for an additional three years.

The company, with dozens of active city contracts totaling at least $ 60 million, does not have a website. It’s also in the midst of a $ 1.3 million lawsuit against the city for hundreds of tree plantings in Brooklyn neighborhoods that the company says have been delayed or mismanaged by city officials.

“Selected on merit”

Executives from several cemetery companies invited to bid on the Hart Island contract called the process confusing and expressed amazement that a landscaping company won.

One executive said there were “so many underlying variables unanswered” – including key questions about the city’s staffing and future ferry service – that the company chose not to submit ‘offer.

Thousands of pages of supply-related documents, obtained as part of a New York Freedom of Information Act request by the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and Columbia’s MuckRock, detail the significant amount of work intended to ensure that Hart Island maintains its burial capacity – and becomes an “aesthetic and welcoming environment for visitors.”

The Department of Social Services said the procurement process won by J. Pizzirusso was competitive, evaluated and rated, with the contractor “selected on the merits”.

“Together, we look forward to continuing to reform the city’s end-of-life planning processes, with a focus on equity, inclusion and dignity for all, regardless of their background,” said McGinn .

Break in prison

Until the recent transition to parks, cemetery operations were an offshoot of neighboring Rikers Island, the town’s main prison complex. Thompson, the new executive director of operations at Hart Island Municipal Cemetery, is a longtime employee of the city jail who started with the Corrections Department in 1988 as a warden.

Thompson has a broad mandate, according to the job description of the post: as “chief adviser” to city leaders “on all matters relating to the operations of the cemetery on Hart Island”. At the Department of Corrections last year, he received a base salary of $ 109,000 and $ 62,400 in overtime and overtime pay.

But one thing has changed: Hart Island has ended its long-standing practice of using inmates to bury bodies. The parks department now has rangers on the island and says it is relaxing some restrictions, now allowing visitors to take photos of burial sites.

Board Member Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) /Ben Fractenberg / THE CITY

Outgoing Council member Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan), who introduced legislation to make Hart Island accessible to the public in 2018, said the city needs to make sure changes are “done right.”

“While we would love to see Hart Island become the graveyard we all hoped it would become as soon as possible, we need to make sure that the process of repairing and transforming the island is transparent, respectful and professionally carried out. of the domain, “Rodriguez said in a statement.

This story, produced in collaboration with THE CITY and the Brown Institute for Media Innovation and MuckRock’s COVID-19 Documenting Project, is part of “MISSING THEM, THE CITY’s ongoing collaborative project to remember every New Yorker killed by COVID-19.


THE CITY is an independent, non-profit news organization dedicated to impactful reporting serving the people of New York City.


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