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Elsewhere in the Archipelago

After more than 30 years, it will soon be possible for the public to again visit Hart Island, at least on some days and as part of guided tours. Given the nature of the island – it’s been the potter’s field for New York City for over 150 years – it’s a slightly weird place to go, but no weirder, I guess, than any other tourism in graveyards. Before the city started using the island for burying the indigent, they had been buried in Washington, Union, and Madison Squares (before they were parks) and in Bryant Park (ditto).

The fact that Manhattan is an island is pretty much base knowledge, I think. People outside of the city (and some inside it) know little about Staten island but the name gives away its status and many more people have heard of the ferry to go there than have ridden it. The fact that Brooklyn and Queens constitute the west end of Long Island is less known, I think. Rikers Island has an unfortunate fame; Ellis and Liberty Islands have a different sort of fame. But that’s where general outside-the-city of the islands ends. Non-New-Yorkers (and many New Yorkers) may not have heard of Roosevelt or Governors Islands. Then you get to the more obscure little islands in the East River, Long Island Sound, and off Staten Island: City Island, Hart Island, Randalls Island, the North and South Brothers, Shooters and Pralls Islands, and the innumerable swampy little islands in Jamaica Bay. In this context, it’s not surprising that the city used some of the islands as a way to hide unpleasant reality out of sight. Roosevelt Island was long known as Welfare Island and it had a workhouse, a prison, and a smallpox hospital, among other facilities.

Above, a 1924 aerial survey. The land on the upper right is the south end of City Island, the left side is the Bronx mainland. Hart Island is the inset in the middle, moved from its actual position north and east (i.e., up and to the right) of City Island.