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Rethinking New York’s “dark shadow”: managing the unclaimed dead on Hart Island, 1869 to the present day
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Byers, C., & Montgomery, J. (2022). Rethinking New York’s “dark shadow”: managing the unclaimed dead on Hart Island, 1869 to the present day. Architecture_media_politics_society, 23(1). https://doi.org/10.14324/111.444.amps.2022v23i1.001
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Approximately 11 miles from the bright lights of Manhattan, a barren, windswept island sits in the Long Island Sound. The landscape is punctuated by crumbling buildings, trees snaking through broken windows after decades of neglect. There are no people here, save for the incarcerated men brought over from Rikers Island to dig endless wide trenches, muddy and dark. Under the ground, the remains of over one million of New York’s most unloved citizens lie stacked in mass, unmarked graves. Or so the dominant narrative goes. This 131-acre island is better known as Hart Island, New York’s public cemetery where the unclaimed dead have been buried since the mid-nineteenth century. The site has long been positioned as the city’s ‘dark shadow’, the final resting place of the unwanted, the lonely, the forgotten and the marginalised. Elements of this narrative are undeniably grounded in truth – the stories of those who have ended up here, many of which have been carefully collected by renowned non-profit The Hart Island Project, offer up endless shades of heartbreak, loss and pain. However, the enduring public perception that a city burial here inevitably means a deeply shameful and degrading end to an unfulfilled, unhappy life is not only inaccurate, but it also severely limits the ways in which we can imagine a possible future for this site. This article aims to bring a historical perspective to the complex issues surrounding the public perception of, and possible future uses for, Hart Island, in order to offer an alternative view on how we can better understand sites of death and contemporary approaches to mourning going forward.