North Brother Island: New York City's Mysterious Neighbor

North Brother Island: New York City's Mysterious Neighbor

Photographer Christopher Payne’s new book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City explores a 20-acre island of ruins situated in the East River. Despite its relative closeness to the city, the island has been uninhabited and gone largely unnoticed since its closure in 1963. One of the few photographers allowed on the island, Payne has been photographing there since 2006 after gaining permission from New York’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“Devoid of human habitation for over half a century, the buildings, streets, and facilities are in ruins, reclaimed by lush vegetation. My photographs of the island, all of which were taken with a large format view camera, convey the beauty and significance of this wild landscape that brims with intrigue and paradox.”

Describing the island as “a secret existing in plain sight” Payne says that North Brother Island was inhabited throughout history, usually as a place to isolate sections of New York’s population. During the 19th century, the island was used as a quarantine hospital. (Payne notes that “the infamous Typhoid Mary was confined there.”) Later, after WWII, it provided temporary housing for veterans. Between 1950 and 1963, when it was finally closed, the island served as a juvenile drug treatment center.

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-1 "The northern side of the island, which faces the Bronx. Hurricane Sandy uprooted many trees and caused erosion."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-3 "The tuberculosis pavilion is the most prominent remaining structure on the island."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-4 "The island’s boiler plant as seen from the roof of the morgue."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-5 "The principal’s office at PS 619. The school served children with communicable diseases and, later, juveniles sent to the island for drug-addiction treatment."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-6 "Tennis courts on the island. In the late 1940s, New York City faced a housing shortage and used the island to accommodate veterans studying on the G.I. Bill. The self-contained community of about 500 people included apartments, a grocery store, a library and a movie theater."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-7 "A view of North Brother Island from the Bronx."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-8 "A home for nurses on North Brother Island, which served as an isolation hospital. The building was renovated in the mid-1930s with money from the Works Progress Administration."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-9 "The lobby of the island’s tuberculosis pavilion, which was completed in 1942. The building was never used as a tuberculosis hospital; it served as a barracks in World War II and later as apartment housing."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-10 "A view of Manhattan from the pavilion."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-11 "The building where coal was stored to power the boilers."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-12 "The balconies of the tuberculosis pavilion had expansive views of Manhattan."

North-Brother-NYC-Payne-2 "The roof of the boiler plant caved in long ago."

Payne says that, although new uses have been proposed for the island, it is largely unnoticed and has been designated as conservation land. “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."
North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City was recently published as a book, which you can find here. The hardcover book includes photographs taken by Payne as well as “a history by University of Pennsylvania preservationist Randall Mason, who has studied the island extensively, and an essay by the writer Robert Sullivan (Rats, The Meadowlands), who came along on one of the rare expeditions.”
Christopher Payne is a photographer trained in architecture who specializes in documenting “America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape.” Exploring a range of architectural and industrial presences in the United States, Payne’s past projects include New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway and Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals. You can find more of Payne’s work on his website.

All images used with permission.
Captions via The New York Times 

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2 Comments

Gregory L'Esperance's picture

Ashes to ashes....

Interesting stuff. The only reason real estate developers haven't condo'd the crap out of this place is because they're too cheap to build a bridge to get there. It's also a hop, skip and a jump away from Rikers.