Christopher Payne, former architect turned photographer, has just published a book about a place very few New Yorkers know about. Situated in the East River, this special place is protected by the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City is full of gorgeous photographs of a long-forgotten island, though it sits in plain view of the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens.
Though not purposely kept a secret, there is no public access to the island. So, for 50 years, as the remaining buildings crumble, nature has been allowed to reclaim it for her own. Because of the lack of predator and human presence, migratory birds like, cormorants, egrets, gulls and herons use the island for nesting in the spring and summer months. Because of this, the island has been declared a migratory bird sanctuary. For his photographs, Payne was only given permission to go to North Brother Island from September through March.
For five years, starting in 2008, Payne, with his parks department chaperones, developed an intimate relationship with North Brother Island. Once he gained his footing on the often overgrown landscape, Payne found the whole experience to be strangely isolating. He described feeling disconnected from the city, even though he could see, and even hear, the bustling metropolis. When living in New York City, everyone seems to desire their own space and a sense of finally being all alone. On the island, Payne said, “you definitely have that. It’s a rare feeling.”
At one time, the island was an active part of the infrastructure of New York City. Morrisania, a town in the Bronx, purchased the island in 1871. The Sisters of Charity built a tuberculosis hospital there. When New York City acquired the deed to the island, it closed the hospital, only to build another one in its place. In 1881 (or 1885, depending on the source) overcrowding in the city’s various quarantine hospitals led to the commission of Riverside Hospital.
Forced isolation was imposed upon those who were carrying contagious diseases such as small pox and tuberculosis. In 1907, Mary Mallon, better known as “Typhoid Mary,” though she exhibited no symptoms, was confined at Riverside. She stayed there in her own tiny cottage until she died in 1938. The hospital was closed in 1942.
When World War II ended, the buildings on North Brother Island were used as housing for returning war veterans, and their families, who were attending New York City colleges. When the nationwide housing shortage ended, the need for the housing available on the island ended as well. As the activity on the island faded, North Brother Island was seemingly forgotten by New York City.
In 1952, North Brother Island, particularly the tuberculosis pavilion, was again in use, this time as a treatment facility and school for juvenile drug offenders. 50 girls and 100 boys, either admitted by the court system or their parents, were housed in the converted building. However, reports of widespread corruption among the staff and a high rate of recidivism, as well as barbaric treatments including “cold turkey,” withdrawal from drugs caused the program and facility to be closed in 1963.
Payne specializes in photographs that depict, “America’s vanishing architecture and landscape.” His interest in North Brother Island was sparked when he was assigned to document the various uses of the East River. Though he was knowledgeable about the story of the deserted island, locating evidence of North Brother Island’s past was challenging. Payne said that accomplishing the project was very much like being a detective. What he did discover was an ever-shifting landscape, which in turn continuously altered the appearance of the dilapidated buildings. The photographic results are at once both poignant and stunning.
Each attempt at using the island to house people resulted in a story that ended badly. Although the people of New York City may have forgotten North Brother Island, the herons, egrets and cormorants have not and their stories contain none of the drama the human element brought to the island. Perhaps the best thing for the island is to let nature reclaim it.
by Stacy Lamy