South Bronx: Dignity for the Dead While Ignoring the Living

Despite being rocked by unprecedented violations in its jail and policing systems, one of New York City’s burgeoning pursuits of justice centers on a community unaffected by the justice system: the dead. Each year since the Civil War, New York City taxpayers have contributed to the burial of 1,500 bodies on an organ-shaped island off the coast of the Bronx, designated as the City’s go-to depository for unclaimed and unidentified bodies. Hart Island is home to the world’s largest publicly-funded graveyard, with over one million souls populating its grounds. The island reaches an almost Hitchcock-like quality of creepiness: bodies are buried namelessly, using prison labor, en masse, in stacks five coffins wide and 20 coffins long, and with no public visitation.

An advocacy group called the Hart Island Project works tirelessly for public visitation and for the de-anonymization of those buried in the graveyard. The project’s interactive opening on its website advises visitors that “history is created through storytelling” and promises that “by adding a story you will bring [name] out of anonymity. The clock will stop ticking.”

But five miles southwest, the ticking continues. Within sight of the island is the South Bronx. Ranked as the nation’s poorest Congressional district and home to over 300,000 living, breathing New Yorkers, the neighborhood is punctuated at its center by the Bronx County Criminal Courthouse and the Bronx County Hall of Justice. Over thirty-six thousand Bronx residents are prosecuted within the confines of these two structures each year. These are human beings with stories on pause, people living with indignity that is larger than statistics can suggest.

It’s within these walls that some of the most staggering numbers tick away. Seventy percent of Bronx felony cases have been awaiting trial for over six months, and 930 felony cases are over two years old (more than four times as many as all other boroughs)—though by New York State law defendants are entitled to a speedy trial of 180 days. Putting the stories of so many lives on pause is a crime beyond that of anonymity. As Community Boards and City Council consider reforms to Hart Island that would make the identities and stories of the deceased more transparent, where are the reform groups to document the stories of those people being dragged through the bureaucratic muck of the criminal justice system?

There’s no arguing that there is something unwaveringly sacred about the dignity of the dead. But what about the living? Where are the petitions decrying the daily indignities that residents of the South Bronx and surrounding communities are subject to on a daily basis? Must we wait for a tragedy or crisis, like the highly publicized story of Kalief Browder, in order for the public to care? What about the infringements on dignity so regular that they have become rote?

The Hart Island Project is dedicated to reclaiming the stories of those “whose identities are erased by a system of burials.” Just like those buried on Hart Island deserve more than a plot number, those waiting in a system of court lines and jail cells are people with stories. The indignity of a mass prosecution system has reduced a community to statistics about asthma, crime, and poverty for too long. Government groups have proven their alignment with the Project’s important mission to ensure that “no one is omitted from history.” It’s time to extend that commitment to those with their histories on pause in the South Bronx.

This January, the Hart Island Project consortium reached such success that Community Board 10 voted on a proposed law that would transfer control of the island from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Parks and Recreation, paving the way for at least part of the island to become a park and for visitor access to the Island. The switch would be more than a monetary technicality, but a symbol of re-emphasis from confinement to freedom.

No place is more in need of such a paradigm shift than the South Bronx. Adjusting priorities from the hugely expensive, unequally distributed, and reactive incarceration system to the park system—its near inverse—would signify a valuation of the stories and lives of all our citizens, not the punitive measures taken against only some. After the City failed on its promise to recreate the parkspace displaced by the new Yankee Stadium, community members are left with crime-riddled spaces as their parks, and the neighborhood lags far behind New York City’s goal of parkspace within a 10-minute walk for every New Yorker. In countless other ways, contact with the criminal justice system overpowers everyday life. The details are pervasive, ranging from disproportionate levels of stop and frisk policing to heightened enmeshed penalties of low-level crimes.

Before we adopt justice reinvestment strategies in a population-zero environment, it’s worth considering their role in a community like the South Bronx, where the stories are not just unvalued like on Hart Island, but they are also still forming en masse. Thankfully, the public is taking steps to bring dignity and voices to Hart Island’s legacies of anonymity. But meanwhile, stories of the Bronx’s living community remain couched in numbers.  Reallocating resources from policing to parks is just one way to shift the focus from statistics to stories in the South Bronx. These are stories both tragic and triumphant, but above all, they are human and a part of history. We’ve turned to hashtagged reminders about the dignity of life once lives have been cut short. Let’s bring dignity to the living too.

Elena Weissmann, US


Elena Weissmann is an advocate at the Bronx Defenders, where her work focuses on providing holistic legal and social justice services for the South Bronx's low-income communities. She previously held a fellowship at the Office of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, conducted independent research on cooperative dialogue in Jerusalem, and served as an analyst for the Global Emergency Group. She holds a dual BA/MPP from the University of Virginia, and has a special interest in cities' policies and lived experiences.

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