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Containing Marginal Memories: The Melancholy Landscapes of Hart Island (New York), Cockatoo Island (Sydney), and Ripapa Island (Christchurch) 

Jacky Bowring


Contained within tight geographical margins, islands are places where memories are intensified and heightened. The antithesis of the dreamy palm-covered paradises of travel brochures are the urban islands that lurk in blind spots, dark and brooding. Spatially and socially marginalised, such islands become memorials to the shadowy dimensions of civilisation: prisons, landfills, military bases, lunatic asylums, and cemeteries. Hart Island, Cockatoo Island, and Ripapa Island are liminal zones at the edges of our consciousness. There are no permanent residents on them, yet they are replete with cultural memories. Hart Island, despite being the United States’ largest cemetery, is practically invisible. Out of bounds to the public, it is a cemetery for the nameless and the homeless, with graves dug by prisoners from Riker’s Island jail. The island’s ruins include a lunatic asylum, prison, amusement park, and Nike anti-missile base, all dissolving into the picturesque greenery. Cockatoo Island is a wholly transformed landscape with silos, dry docks, and buildings sculpted directly into the sandstone. The infrastructural modifications have housed prisons, reform schools, and shipyards. Ripapa Island is also highly modified, with its defensive opportunities realised in its long history as a pā, a military fort, and a prison, which in the late nineteenth century housed followers of Te Whiti from the passive protest at Parihaka. Bearing their weighty cargo of memories, each island presents a conundrum, a “what now?” dilemma that vexes those charged with their care: to be preserved in a reserve as at Ripapa, or gentrified as a recreational site like Cockatoo, or to remain resolutely off the map as with Hart Island?