North Brother Island:
The Last Unknown Place in New York City
Essay by Robert Sullivan
History by Randall Mason
Fordham University Press, 2014
144 pages, 11.5 x 9.4"
North Brother Island is among the most unexpected of places: an uninhabited island of ruins in New York City that hardly anyone knows; a secret existing in plain sight. It is both part of the city and a world apart from it. Its twenty acres sit low in the East River, just north of Hell Gate, with a dozen buildings in various states of decay. As there is no public access, it’s most easily seen as you lift off the tarmac at LaGuardia or as you drive up the New England freeway through the Bronx.
North Brother Island came into prominence in the late 19th century, when public health issues of an exploding population regularly made headlines. Like other islands in the harbor, it was perfectly suited as a buffer against contagions, and from the 1870s through the 1930s it was used primarily as a quarantine hospital (the infamous Typhoid Mary was confined there). After WWII it provided a temporary home for veterans, and from the 1950s it was used as a juvenile drug treatment center until its closure in 1963. Over the years, new uses have been proposed for the island, but by and large it has been forgotten. Thanks to a threatened species of shorebird, the black-crowned night heron, North Brother has been designated as conservation land, to protect nesting grounds for the herons, which have unwittingly helped to preserve the island’s forgotten fragments of New York’s history.
Since 2008, with permission from the NYC Parks Department, I have been one of a few photographers allowed on the island, and my photographs comprise a comprehensive record of the buildings and its evolving landscape over many seasons.