Just 350 yards east of the Bronx, an uninhabited island known as North Brother Island lies in the East River, sealed off from the world. Before it became off-limits to the public in 1963, the city-owned island served many purposes since the 1880s. Some are more unsettling, such as quarantining victims of diseases and treating drug-addicts, and some are practical, like housing returning second world-war veterans.
We previously discussed North Brother Island on a tour of New York City’s other islands. Today, we’re looking deeper at North Brother Island’s unstable past.
In 1881, Riverside Hospital was commissioned on North Brother Island due to overcrowding on other island quarantine hospitals in New York. The facility treated everything from smallpox to tuberculosis, taking in unfortunate patients who were forcibly removed from Manhattan’s streets due to their contagious diseases. It was here in 1907 that the notorious Typohid Mary was confined. Mary didn’t exhibit symptoms and refused to admit she was a carrier, leading to her exile after outbreaks in the places she worked. After two decades of quarantine, she died on the island in 1938, followed by the hospital’s closure shortly after in 1942.
After World War II, the island was repurposed to provide living accommodation for student veterans studying in New York colleges. But without warning, the housing shortage across the country subsided and created more housing options; which in turn left the island neglected once again.
North Brother Island reopened as a facility to treat young drug offenders in 1952, and the island’s buildings were repurposed to function as both a center and a school. Drug addicts were banished to the island and locked in a room until they were clean. But the program was short-lived; by the early 1960s, widespread staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the facility to close, leaving the island untouched by humans ever since.
Currently, the North Brother Island is a protected sanctuary for birds, owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Because birds need a certain amount of protection and distance from predators, the environment of the island represents a critical nesting habitat, one of the only few throughout New York City. There is limited access to the island due to the sensitivity of the bird-breeding habitat. Unlike other spaces in New York, North Brother Island is a place where people have given up on inhabiting. North Brother Island has been reclaimed by nature, and perhaps it’s best to leave it that way.
Christopher Payne is the author of Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals and New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway. Read more about Payne’s photography on Untapped Cities and on his website.