Hart Island’s Last Stand
After years of study, the city has declared an emergency to bulldoze most of the buildings on the city’s potter’s field, without following the usual environmental review process.,
For more than 150 years, Hart Island, half a mile east of City Island in the Bronx, has been a depository of the marginalized, an isolated outpost to which the city has variously shipped the poor and unclaimed dead, the imprisoned, the sick and the troubled.
Best known as the city’s potter’s field, where more than a million New Yorkers have been buried in common graves since the 1860s, the one-mile-long strip of land has also been home to facilities for the insane, the diseased, the addicted and the homeless — as well as for a segregated regiment of African-American Union Army troops during the Civil War.
Enough remnants of this layered institutional history survive on Hart Island, both above and below the ground, that in 2016, New York State formally designated the entire island as eligible for listing on both the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Among the 19 or so abandoned old structures still standing to tell the island’s tale — and the city’s — are several that the state identified as “notable buildings,” among them an 1885 women’s insane asylum, a 1930s Catholic chapel and a 1912 “Dynamo Room,” with its arched openings and prominent smokestack.
Yet even as control of Hart Island passed on July 1 from the city’s Department of Correction to the Parks Department, as mandated by a 2019 law, city agencies had already been working for months on a $52 million plan to demolish every one of the island’s old buildings.
On June 5, the Department of Buildings, citing public safety, issued an emergency order for the “immediate demolition” of 18 institutional, residential and service buildings constructed on Hart Island between the late 1800s and the mid 1900s.
Preservationists called for a more deliberate and transparent decision-making process with a full environmental review, including public hearings and formal consideration of potential damage to historic resources before the buildings are destroyed.
But if the city comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, gives final approval for the emergency declaration, the Department of Design and Construction will be authorized to raze the 18 structures for the Parks Department.
“The comptroller’s office has been working with the city to resolve questions and concerns regarding the proposed demolition,” said Hazel Crampton-Hays, the comptroller’s press secretary. “In response to our requests, the Department of Design and Construction has agreed to communicate with the state historic preservation and environmental authorities about any necessary reviews or adjustments, and agreed to amend the emergency request to procure a construction manager to determine the timeline, scope, and pricing of the proposed project and use that information to then seek approval from our office for the demolition itself.”
“Given these modifications and approval from the Law Department,” she continued, “we have now approved the amended emergency request.”
Under city rules, before receiving approval from the comptroller’s office to proceed with an emergency demolition, a city agency must demonstrate the existence of an emergency condition that poses “an unforeseen danger” to life, safety, property or a necessary service. The agency must also show that the condition creates an immediate need for such action that cannot be procured using normal procedures.
The city’s emergency order stated that “excluding the current field offices for island operations, a war memorial and two decommissioned Nike missile silos, there are 18 remnant and unsafe one-, two-, three- and four-story buildings” on Hart Island. “All were observed to be in advanced stages of collapse, either fully or mostly so.” The buildings, the order said, “are an immediate danger to the public and the island staff.”
As emergencies go, this has been a slow-developing one, according to internal city agency reports obtained by The New York Times. Most of the buildings on the island have been vacant and deteriorating ever since Phoenix House, a substance-abuse rehabilitation center, left the island in 1976.
In 2015, an internal draft report by the Department of Buildings called for the demolition of 13 Hart Island buildings but recommended “immediate repair” of the century-old Record Storage Building and a pumping station; it also said that no action was required for a third building, a small pump house. The report further recommended that the chimney adjacent to the Dynamo Room, a power-generating facility built around 1912, be lowered — not demolished — and that the Catholic chapel and the three-story Victorian-era Women’s Asylum, also known as the Pavilion, each be fenced as a “possible ruin site.”
In March 2020, after a new survey, another internal Buildings Department draft report again recommended the red-brick Record Storage Building “for immediate repair” and noted that “eight-foot-high chain-link fences with lockable gates are viable options for 16 vacant, open and unguarded buildings” — but the report nonetheless recommended that those 16 structures be razed.
Not for another 15 months, however, did the agency issue the emergency demolition order, yet again increasing the number of buildings to be leveled, this time to 18. Among the 18 edifices slated for emergency demolition was the Record Storage Building, which the same agency had described just a year earlier as “suitable to renovate” and “not complicated to repair.”
Under state law, the City Environmental Quality Review process, is triggered whenever a city agency directly undertakes a discretionary action or when a project needs city funding. According to the manual for the city’s review process, city agencies are required “to assess, disclose and mitigate to the greatest extent practicable the significant environmental consequences of their decisions to fund, directly undertake or approve a project.” The effects on historic and cultural resources are among the impacts that must be reviewed. The purpose of the law is to ensure that decision makers formally incorporate consideration of environmental impacts, including damage to historic structures, into their policy decisions.
But a spokesman for Mayor Bill de Blasio said, in an emailed message, “The emergency demolition work is not subject to environmental review” and that all necessary permits and approvals would be obtained before the work began.
“Clearly this is all a pretext for environmental-law evasion,” said Jack L. Lester, a lawyer who specializes in New York environmental review law. “There’s no emergency, but that’s something they can hang their hat on to avoid any kind of public scrutiny. It’s not rational — it’s pretextual, it’s arbitrary and it violates the law.”
Under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, emergency actions exempt from environmental review are defined as those “that are immediately necessary on a limited and temporary basis for the protection or preservation of life, health, property or natural resources.” The actions must also be tailored to deal with the emergency while causing the least possible change or disturbance to the environment.
Mr. Lester said that the passage of time between the Buildings Department’s surveys of Hart Island and its emergency order undermined any claim that the demolitions are “immediately necessary.” “How do you have an emergency if it’s been going on for five years and their own reports show that less drastic means can be taken short of demolition?” he asked.
On July 12, officials from the mayor’s office and the city Landmarks Preservation Commission held “an initial discussion” with the State Historic Preservation Office about the Hart Island project, according to a spokesman for the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
“City officials indicated that project work is not imminent in 2021, and that specific funding sources — a potential trigger for project review by the State Historic Preservation Office — have not been identified,” the state spokesman said. He added that state preservation officials “raised preliminary concerns about grave and archaeological resource protection, and advised the city to consider retaining an on-site archaeological monitor.”
In justifying the city’s emergency demolition order, the mayor’s spokesman said in an email that “city employees and city contractors are authorized” to be on Hart Island “for work associated with ongoing burial operations and island administration work throughout the island, in close proximity to these unsafe buildings.”
Amid the pandemic, the number of dead buried on the island last year more than doubled to 2,666 from the previous year, according to a public statement by Dina Maniotis, chief of staff of the city’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner.
In addition, the mayor’s spokesman said, unauthorized visitors travel to the island by boat, placing themselves at risk from severely deteriorated buildings. “In the interest of public safety,” he said, “the buildings must be fully demolished, and brought down to grade, with foundations removed.”
The 2020 internal Buildings Department draft report painted a more nuanced and somewhat less dire picture of the condition of Hart Island’s buildings and described how they might be made safe by fencing them off. But, noting that “no plans exist for the restoration or refurbishment of the remnant structures on the island,” the report recommended that the 16 dilapidated buildings be demolished for safety reasons.
The report also observed, however, that some of the island’s old buildings were not irrevocably deteriorated.
The red-brick Records Storage Building, constructed around 1910 facing a U-shaped young men’s reformatory that also still stands, “is suitable for repair and can be put into service,” the report observed. “With a footprint of approximately 35 feet by 35 feet, the building is not complicated to repair.”
The report recommended that the building, which has a shallow pyramidal roof with high clerestory windows, be made safe by fencing it rather than razing it, and city engineers rated its “ease of restoration” as “moderate to good.” But the structure is now slated to be leveled.
The 2020 report also described a one-story red-brick pumping station, dating to around the 1920s, as “viable for storage,” but it recommended demolition anyway.
The red-brick-and-stone Catholic Chapel, built by the Catholic Charities around 1935, “still stands in surprisingly good condition” despite the removal of its bell and stained-glass windows, noted a guidebook published in 2018 by the Historic Districts Council, a citywide preservation group. By 2020, Buildings Department engineers described the church’s “ease of restoration” as “moderate,” but they nonetheless recommended that it be razed.
The cornerstone for the chapel, at the time of its construction the only separate prison building in the United States set aside for Catholic services, was laid in 1931 by the rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at a ceremony attended by Protestant and Jewish clergymen, prominent citizens and about 1,000 prisoners. The house of worship replaced wooden chapels that had been built on the island by Catholic, Episcopal and Hebrew organizations, and it was used by all faiths.
In the 1950s, the chapel served homeless men living in a Hart Island rehabilitation center, but the religious building was abandoned in 1966, after the island’s workhouse closed. Under the city’s current emergency order, the chapel will be bulldozed.
The 1885 Pavilion was built as a 300-patient women’s asylum.
“Some of the buildings used as dormitories for the insane” on Hart Island, an 1890 grand jury concluded, “are a disgrace to civilization.”
“The water supply on this island is obtained from cisterns and driven wells,” the grand jury continued. “When it is known that 75,000 bodies lie buried” very close “to these cisterns, one can readily imagine what the character of the water must necessarily be.”
The asylum closed in 1895 and was later used as a workhouse for incarcerated young men. The 2020 report described the Pavilion as unsafe.
The mayor’s spokesman said that Buildings Department engineers were most recently on Hart Island in February and found that the 18 buildings now planned for demolition had continued to deteriorate and were in danger of further collapse.
Not included in the demolition order are the modern field offices for Hart Island operations, two decommissioned Cold War-era Nike missile silos and a peace monument built by prisoners in the 1940s, which will be fenced and secured.
Notwithstanding the state’s determination that Hart Island contains notable archaeological and architectural resources, the city landmarks commission concluded in 2012, after surveying the island, that the buildings were in too advanced a state of disrepair to be viable for designation either as individual city landmarks or as a historic district.
At the commission’s recommendation, archaeologists will monitor for artifacts during subsurface work performed as part of the planned demolition project. A Historic American Buildings Survey of the 18 doomed buildings will also be prepared, documenting the structures before their destruction.
Simeon Bankoff, executive director of the Historic Districts Council, said that the planned demolition “of 18 recognized, publicly owned historic structures by the City of New York” should be aired in public hearings under the city’s environmental quality review process.
“What we don’t want is a rush to action by government without a clearly defined plan and without an opportunity for public stakeholders to weigh in and opine on that plan,” he said. “This is a huge public project with implications for all of New York, because it has implications for anyone who has relatives or loved ones buried on the island, as well as for how Hart Island is going to be utilized and accessed moving forward into the future.”
Mr. Lester, the environmental lawyer, said that the issue of knocking down Hart Island’s buildings without an environmental review was larger than the fate of the specific buildings.
“What’s at stake is the rule of law, and it affects everyone’s life because it affects how the city considers the environment or doesn’t consider the environment,” he said. By declaring an emergency and forgoing the customary environmental review, he said, “they avoid oversight, they avoid having to come up with alternatives, they avoid having public comment, they avoid having to consider mitigating actions and they circumvent democracy.”
Melinda Hunt, president of the Hart Island Project, a nonprofit group that advocates for the restoration of the island as a natural burial ground and wilderness site, said that she wholeheartedly supported the mayor’s demolition plan and that preserving the burial process on the island was far more important than preserving buildings.
“City Cemetery is a historic site for marginalized people whose histories have long been overlooked,” she said. “The buildings are offensive to thousands of low-income families whose relatives are buried in close proximity to former prison facilities.” She added that the buildings should be removed “to honor and provide access to the gravesites of low-income people of color.”
Herbert Sweat Jr., whose infant daughter was buried on Hart Island along with many of his forebears, said he was in favor of preserving all buildings that could help give perspective on the island’s many transfigurations. “From my travels over there,” he said, “I have seen with my own eyes, brick and mortar where you can tell the bricks were reused” from Civil War-era buildings and survive as part of extant structures.
Mr. Sweat, 72, former chairman of Black Veterans for Social Justice, said he wanted the island transferred to the National Park Service and that a memorial should be erected for the 31st Regiment of the United States Colored Troops, an African-American regiment that was organized and trained on Hart Island during the Civil War. The regiment fought several battles, pursued Commander Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army to Appomattox and was on hand for the Confederate surrender in 1865.
But Mr. Sweat said that he had never been taught any of that history in Brooklyn public schools and that demolishing Hart Island’s buildings would similarly deprive New Yorkers of a tangible connection with their past.
“That’s how the taking away of history from the people is done — they take it out of our sight,” he said. “That’s so deep, because how do you destroy that type of history? How many thousands of people have been transformed in those buildings that held them and ministered to them before they either went into the ground or went back into the city? As quiet as it’s kept, they hide what went on with the people there.”