Vicki Pavia, whose baby is buried on Hart Island, took an arranged visit to the grave in 1994. Joel Sternfeld/Courtesy of Melinda Hunt

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.

A copy of Leonard Melfi's prescient play. (Courtesy of Melinda Hunt/Hart Island Project)

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."

When someone adds a story about Shelly Bvslowitz, the clock will stop. (Hart Island Project)
The burial record of Kenneth Selesky. (Hart Island Project)

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.

A map of the cemetery with marked grave sites is one of the interactive features on the site. (Hart Island Project)

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."

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. photo: South Korean soldiers attempt to disinfect the sidewalks of Seoul's Gagnam district in response to the spread of COVID-19.
    Coronavirus

    Pandemics Are Also an Urban Planning Problem

    Will COVID-19 change how cities are designed? Michele Acuto of the Connected Cities Lab talks about density, urbanization and pandemic preparation.  

  2. Illustration: two roommates share a couch with a Covid-19 virus.
    Coronavirus

    For Roommates Under Coronavirus Lockdown, There Are a Lot of New Rules

    Renters in apartments and houses share more than just germs with their roommates: Life under coronavirus lockdown means negotiating new social rules.

  3. Equity

    We'll Need To Reopen Our Cities. But Not Without Making Changes First.

    We must prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus. But there are changes we can make now to prepare locked-down cities for what’s next.

  4. Equity

    The Problem With a Coronavirus Rent Strike

    Because of coronavirus, millions of tenants won’t be able to write rent checks. But calls for a rent holiday often ignore the longer-term economic effects.

  5. Coronavirus

    A Green Stimulus Plan for a Post-Coronavirus Economy

    A group of U.S. economists, academics and policymakers say the Covid-19 pandemic is an opportunity to fix the economy — and the planet — for the long term.

×