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North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City

North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City

Photographs by Christopher Payne
with a history by Randall Mason
an essay by Robert Sullivan
Copyright Date: 2014
Published by: Fordham University Press
Pages: 144
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  • Book Info
    North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City
    Book Description:

    From a quarantine hospital to a juvenile drug treatment center to an uninhabited island of ruins--this magnificent photographic survey that brings North Brother Island to life. Few people today have ever heard of North Brother Island, though a hundred years ago it was place known to--and often feared by--nearly everyone in New York City. The island, a small dot in the East River, twenty acres slotted between today's gritty industrial shores of the Bronx and Queens, was a minor piece of the New York archipelago until the late 19th century, when calls for social and sanitary reform--and the massive expansion of the city's population--combined to remake NBI as a hospital island, a place to contain infectious disease and, later, other societal ills. Abandoned since 1963, North Brother Island is a ruin and a wildlife sanctuary (it is the protected nesting ground of the Black-crowned Night Heron), closed to the public and virtually invisible to it. But one cannot mistake its abandoned state as a sign of its irrelevance to the city's history and culture. Traces of the extensive hospital campus remain, as do sites linked to notorious people (it was the final home of "Typhoid Mary") and events (the steamship General Slocum sank by its shores). It has stories to tell. Photographer Christopher Payne (Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals), was granted permission by New York City's Parks & Recreation Department to photograph the island over a period of years. The results are both beautiful and startling. On North Brother Island, devoid of human habitation for fifty years, buildings great and small are being consumed by the unchecked growth of vegetation. In just a few decades, a forest has sprung up where once there were the streets and manicured lawns of a hospital campus. North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City includes 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.

    eISBN: 978-0-8232-5772-0
    Subjects: Architecture and Architectural History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. [i]-[v])
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. [vi]-[vii])
  3. The Essays Wayfarers
    (pp. 1-9)
    Robert Sullivan

    The beach is sandy, a rare thing, a leftover from an older city of New York and, if I had to bet, a feature of its future. Sandy beaches are nearly extinct in and around New York Harbor, hardened up for piers and flood prevention and, over the years and especially in the last decade or so, for development. There’s Coney Island, sure, and the recreational beaches onto which sand is carted in, and then a few new river spots reconfigured to include sand. The first thing you notice when you land on North Brother is that the beach is...

  4. Wildness, Disease, and the Changing Civic Landscape: North Brother Island’s History
    (pp. 10-30)
    Randall Mason

    From your window seat, descending to LaGuardia up the length of Manhattan Island or down over Westchester, look for a pair of islands slotted between the industrial and gritty shores of the Bronx and Queens with the airport just beyond. They can also be glimpsed while cruising up the Whitestone Bridge: a couple spots of brown or green wildness (depending on the season) hard against the edge of the Bronx, amid the blue-gray water. Take Amtrak north from Penn Station or an East River boat tour and you can sidle up next to them, though only to see tree canopies...

  5. The Photographs
    (pp. 31-130)
    Christopher Payne
  6. Afterword The Last Unknown Place in New York City
    (pp. 131-136)
    Christopher Payne

    I first learned of North Brother island in 2004, while I was photographing industrial sites along the East River for an exhibit at the Municipal Arts Society. The idea of a forgotten island is enough to pique anyone’s interest, but I found it particularly appealing because it reminded me of the work I was doing at the same time on abandoned state mental institutions. Two years later, I tagged along with NYC Parks & Recreation employees on a brief excursion to the island. I felt overwhelmed that day, like a rushed tourist with too much to see. I vowed to return....

  7. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 137-137)
  8. The Authors
    (pp. 138-138)