In the past 50 years, North Brother Island has almost been entirely removed from the city’s collective memory map. Located in the East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island, it has a history of housing people New York City couldn’t or wouldn’t accommodate: In the late 19th century, it was used to quarantine Typhoid Mary. Then it became a temporary home for World War II veterans. In the 1950s, it was a juvenile drug treatment center. It closed in 1963.
Former architect Christopher Payne is telling the island’s forgotten story in his book North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City. Payne got access from The New York City Department of Parks and Recreation to survey the island, usually off-limits to the public.
Although once connected to the commerce of the city–ferries ran back and forth to transport hospital workers and war veterans–the island now houses a smattering of ruined buildings, overgrown vegetation, and discarded books. The island’s survival (no condos) is thanks to the black-crowned night heron, a threatened species.
“One thing that struck me was seeing how much nature had reclaimed the island,” Payne said. “If you go there and don’t have any idea what the place used to be, you’d assume that’s how it always was.”
Seeing the island overrun by nature, it’s hard to imagine the kitchen tables, the hospital beds, and the houses once in place. People assume it takes hundreds of years for a place to decay but as Payne points out, it only takes a few decades for a place to disappear.