News
04.02.2008
Lost City in the Woods
North Brother Island in the East River is visited by rare birds, the occasional park employee, and photographer Christopher Payne, whose work documents the Art Deco hospital, Neo-Gothic morgue, and other ruins there. The complex is a crumbling testament to an era with a greater sense of civic duty.



Architect and photographer Christopher Payne is fascinated with the afterlives of buildings. A chronicler of ruins, he has photographed disused factories on the East River, the High Line on the West Side, outmoded transit electrical substations throughout Manhattan, and, for the past few years, shuttered insane asylums and state hospitals across the country. Payne’s latest subject is the buildings and landscape of North Brother, a derelict hospital island in the Bronx under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, far removed from the cycles of development and change that are transforming the city. Evidence of habitation and of the island’s checkered history is literally disappearing into the woods.

In the 1880s, the island was home to a contagious disease hospital and was a model of reform-era hygiene and efficiency, earning the praise of the muckraking journalist Jacob Riis. Among its inhabitants was “Typhoid” Mary Mallon, the cook and notorious source of several outbreaks, who died there in 1938. The island was also the site of one of the nation’s worst nautical disasters, the 1904 downing of the steamship General Slocum, which sank just offshore carrying German immigrants on a holiday outing. Nurses and patients on the island rescued nearly 250 passengers, but more than one thousand people died. The tuberculosis hospital was completed in 1943, but was quickly repurposed to house World War II veterans who were attending college in the city through the GI Bill. By 1952, the island became a treatment facility for juvenile drug addicts before being abandoned altogether in 1964.

Today North Brother has largely slipped from public consciousness. It does not, for example, appear on the MTA Subway map: The place where the 29-acre island would be shows only water. “The city has an uncountable number of histories and events that are lodged, hidden away in some archive or someone’s memory,” said Randall Mason, a professor of historic preservation at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied the island extensively. “But things have a way of coming back; they resurface.” He cites the African Burial Ground as an example. “Places become invisible if they’re not used,” he said. The Parks Department classifies North Brother as a nature preserve. Department representatives visit only a few times a year and the public is prohibited because of safety concerns.

While photographing sites for the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance, Payne first saw the island from afar. “I felt like I had found a lost city in a jungle, and yet here I was in New York City,” Payne said. His boat, he realized, was too big to get close to the island’s ruined dock. “Here was this lost world, a hundred feet away, that I couldn’t get to.” On a second trip, he found its buildings—a hospital, power plant, boiler, morgue, housing, cistern, and other infrastructure—receding into the landscape. “It’s strange to look at old photos and see how it functioned, how clear it was, a modern, open campus,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly Nature reclaims what’s Hers.” In his photographs, trees sprout from the foundation line of the solitary staff house as layers of brick peel away from the facades. Brightly painted interiors are visible through the shards of glass in the robust-looking art deco tuberculosis hospital.

For the Parks Department, the island’s most important resident is the Black-crowned Night Heron, a rare bird that has slowly been returning to the region since the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. North Brother is part of a chain of small islands throughout the region called the “harbor herons complex,” according to Bill Tai, director of natural resources for Parks. The much smaller South Brother Island came into the Parks portfolio this November, when the federal government bought it for $2 million and turned it over to the city. Acknowledging the island’s history and its crumbling architecture, Tai called North Brother “the most interesting of the heron islands.” He added, however, that “maybe its highest and best use is to preserve it for wildlife.” Parks is sympathetic to the island’s history and the concerns of preservationists, and according to Tai, the department is hoping to do a partial restoration of the dock to make it occasionally accessible for small groups, and has secured $500,000 in funding toward that goal. Restoration of one of the smaller buildings as an interpretive center may be possible, but he noted, “We have very reduced budget forecasts, so it’s not a very high priority.”

In this era of public-private partnerships, piecemeal development, and limited public resources, the state of limbo in which the island sits is not altogether uncommon. The scale and significance of its architecture, once accessible by frequent ferry service, is a disquieting reminder that such limitations were not always commonplace. For Payne, abandoned public buildings hold a particular attraction, not just for the romance of their ruin but as vestiges of civic aspirations long since jettisoned.

Alan G. Brake

Alan G. Brake is an associate editor at AN.