“One Million American Dreams” is now streaming on Hulu. The documentary is a production of the Irish Film Board and it takes an unflinching look at what happens when the impoverished and unclaimed die in New York City.
“One Million American Dreams”: Hart Island and the New York City Department of Correction
Hart Island is part of an island group that includes Ellis Island, Welfare Island and Quarantine Island. Each of the islands served a purpose, mostly to keep undesirables out of the sight of people living a good life in New York City.
Hart Island is an archipelago 16 miles from Manhattan, and since 1869, the poor and unidentified dead have been buried there. This is no historic event – – the process continues to present day, which might be the most harrowing fact. The dead are buried by Riker’s inmates who are paid 50 cents an hour for the task.
There is something sad and unfair in the way that the 101 acres of Hart Island are used to pack in as many deceased as possible. The film discusses the span of years it takes for the simple coffins to deteriorate, and thus more can be buried on top of them.
The film sheds a harsh light on what happens when a city gets too big to care for each citizen, living or dead.
“One Million American Dreams”: the opposition of New York glamour
Experts who participate in the film point out that aside from New York’s shining reputation as a mecca of publishing, finance and the performing arts, there is the reality of people who are not stars, who are not “making it,” and for whom life is brutal.
This is not a New York people are used to seeing, whether they live in the city or not. An informal poll of New Yorkers revealed that most people have never heard of Hart Island. And perhaps for good reason: the island is not open to the public. In one of the only triumphant scenes in the film, one of the formerly unclaimed is visited on the island. His family ultimately has him buried properly in his native country. The filmmakers were not allowed to film the island. They present the scene instead with animated graphics.
“One Million American Dreams” creates its main narrative by following four people who have loved ones who ended up on Hart Island. Particularly sad to hear are cases of infants and children who died, and when their parents could not raise funds, or were denied burial assistance from the city, ended up on the austere and lonely Hart Island. All of the cases are troubling. There is also the problem of medical schools using bodies and discarding them on the island. However, the process can result in a deceased person sitting in cold storage for years, and his family never notified of his or her whereabouts.
In some cases, it is simple bureaucracy that allows bodies, people, to get lost. Sometimes it is a lack of professionalism and compassion that allows a court-appointed guardian to fail to contact an elderly immigrant’s family when he dies. This happened despite the guardian collecting fees from the man’s social security, and despite the guardian having been in contact with the family prior to his death.
But the existence of Hart Island is one of things that makes New York what it is, at least in part. The cold indifference, noted easily by East Coast transplants from other parts of the US, has been cultivated by the city’s refusal to care for those who couldn’t keep up with the pace and cost of New York City. This is concisely discussed by one of the film’s experts and is one of the many nuances that makes it worth watching.
Also not to be missed is the brief, but telling insight from the perspective of a former Riker’s inmate who worked on Hart Island in the early 1990s. The space is referred to as “Potter’s Field.” His description of who was being buried on the island sounds typical of the indifference that has allowed Hart Island to persist as it has.
“One Million American Dreams” reminds viewers that everyone is connected to someone, but people die alone. Watching the film raises the question of “can a city be too big?” The answer might depend on personal preferences, but should so many people, precious and unique, be anonymously dumped, when more could be done to allow their families opportunity to bury them with identification and dignity?
Ultimately, “One Million American Dreams” strives to make at least some of the dead at Hart Island less anonymous. It forces viewers to remember the humanity of other people, whether they or their families have attained modern standards of success or not.