Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
An interactive project is building a community around the thousands buried in the city's inaccessible Hart Island cemetery.
Roy Foss was a father who fought and lost a battle against alcoholism. Jan Winiarski sent money back to his family in Poland. Kenneth Selesky loved to cook. And Leonard Melfi was a famous playwright—who eerily wrote a play about dying anonymously.
These are just a few of the stories of the thousands of unclaimed dead buried in New York's City Cemetery on Hart Island. Since 1980, prisoners from Rikers Island have buried thousands of poor, homeless, and unidentified people on Hart. This part of the city has been under the control of the Department of Corrections since 1968 and closed to the public. But now, artist Melinda Hunt has launched an interactive online memorial that provides digital access to the cemetery. Through the Traveling Cloud Museum, loved ones can look up information, build community, and share memories.
There's already a lot of activity on the website, says Hunt. More and more people are registering to contribute nuggets of information about the dead, stopping the digital clock that measures how long that person has remained anonymous. Hunt says the stories contain heartfelt details that contributors might never have shared with anyone before.
"They're not just writing anything the way they would on Facebook," she says. "This is a more thoughtful process."
Hunt has been involved in multimedia art projects about Hart Island since the 1990s. After her film Hart Island: An American Cemetery was released in 2008, she filed a Freedom of Information Act request for more than 50,000 burial records that laid the foundation of the online database she now maintains. Her efforts helped lead to the introduction of legislation in 2014 that would give control of the 101-acre cemetery to the city's Department of Parks and Recreation, so visitors can frequent the graves freely. If the act passes, the new interactive elements of Hunt's memorial will help visitors engage with the grave site, and the deceased, on multiple levels.
As new lawsuits continue to demand access for families, Hunt is watching the the online community rise and simmer. She is focusing on creating a forum where people can discover the neglected part of the New York, and discover themselves in the process. To that end, separating fact from fiction in the contributed stories is besides the point, she says.
"It doesn't matter if the stories are true or not," she says. "What matters is that the stories are told."