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North Brother Island: New York's forgotten time capsule

Lying in the middle of New York City’s East River, between mainland Bronx and Rikers Island, is a pair of largely forgotten islands that are as much of a part of the area’s history as the many bridges that cross the natural harbour of the city. 

North and South Brother Islands have faded into somewhat obscurity, and even though they both have a story of their own, today we’re concentrating on North Brother Island, a dilapidated reminder of how we used to live and how we used to treat one another. The island once housed the Riverside Hospital for quarantinable diseases, but as technology and healthcare developed over the late 19th century and into the early 20th, it found itself losing importance, kicking off the slow fade into the anonymity that it now occupies. 

For instance, the dilapidated tuberculosis Pavillion was completed in 1943, but by this time, it was no longer needed as the threat of TB was waning, as was the need to quarantine people on islands, so it was then used to house returning veterans from World War II and juvenile offenders. 

The island now lies uninhabited, and according to a report by the New York City Parks Department, North Brother Island is made up of 20 acres of land, which is pretty miraculous for a city so densely populated. Notably, access to the island is prohibited, and if permission is granted, you have to be escorted by an NYC Parks staffer. 

Photographer Christopher Payne told the BBC: “You step onto it, and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of the city and yet you’re completely alone. It’s an experience that I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s like you’re walking back into time, into another world, and yet you still hear the sounds of the city.”

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North Brother Island and South Brother Island were first claimed by the Dutch West India Company in 1614, receiving the name ‘De Desellen’, a translation of “the companions”. However, by the late 1600s, they passed to the hands of the British, who now occupied the area. 

In 1695, the British government granted both islands to James Graham, but he refused to build a settlement on the island due to the hazardous currents. In a strange way, this set a precedent for how the islands were to be perceived throughout their history, only having a brief dalliance with human civilisation. 

A lighthouse was built on North Brother Island in 1869, and apart from that solitary obelisk, it remained uninhabited until 1885, when the Riverside Hospital relocated there from Blackwell’s Island. The hospital was founded in the 1850s as a response to the premier contagious disease of the day, smallpox, and so when it moved to North Brother Island, it was a perfect place to treat the sufferers in isolation from the City’s ever-expanding population. Given that the 19th century was the era of quarantinable diseases, the hospital’s mission then looked to treat others such as typhoid, polio and, of course, TB.

If it wasn’t readily clear that North Brother Island is inextricably linked to the anthropological history of New York City, the next two points will reaffirm this. In June 1904, the island was the site of the wreck of the steamship General Slocum, where 1,021 people died.

The notorious figure, Mary Mallon, AKA ‘Typhoid Mary’, the first American to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogenic bacteria, Salmonella typhi, who infected between 51 to 122 people with typhoid fever, was held on the island for two decades until she passed away in November 1938.

Reflecting just how brutal our treatment of others was back then, which was undoubtedly bread out of utilitarian need, because of her condition, she was declared a public menace in 1915, which led to her internment. Whilst this was for the public good, her life was catastrophically miserable, and you can’t help but think if it had happened 20 years later, her story wouldn’t have ended in the same way. 

It was in the 1930s that the need for a quarantine hospital declined. Then, after the Second World War, the veterans were housed on the island, out of social necessity again, due to the housing crisis. Still, after the crisis decreased, the island was left abandoned again until the ’50s, when a clinic to treat teenage drug addicts was opened. 

However, echoing One Flew over the Cuckoos Nest, although the facility claimed that it offered a range of treatment to its patients, it was actually a very medieval institution. Heroin addicts were locked in a room until they were clean, with many maintaining after they were released that they were held there against their will. The facility was eventually closed due to staff corruption in 1963, and interestingly, it was the inspiration for the famous Broadway play, Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, which launched the career of Al Pacino

Since then, consecutive mayors of New York City have deliberated on what to do with the island, from selling it, to accommodating the homeless or using it as an extension of Rikers Island jail. No decision has been made, so it remains trapped in time, where nature has started to reclaim what is hers.

It is home to colonies of black-crowed night heron and barn swallows, who nest there peacefully, with the eclectic sounds of the city reduced to just background noise, a modernised reminder of the island’s history. 

Watch Christopher Payne discuss North Brother Island below.

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