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

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


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780823257713
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Publication date: 05/01/2014
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 9.40(w) x 11.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Christopher Payne, a photographer based in New York City, specializes in the documentation of America’s vanishing architecture and industrial landscape. Trained as an architect, he has a natural interest in how things are purposefully designed and constructed, and how they work. His first book, New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, offered dramatic, rare views of the behemoth machines that are hidden behind modest facades in New York City. His second book, Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals, which includes an essay by the renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks, is the result of a seven-year exploration of America’s vast and largely abandoned state mental institutions. Asylum was winner of the Ken Book Award of the National Alliance on Mental Illness/NYC and was named one of the “10 Best Art Books” by New York Times critic Holland Cotter.

Randall Mason is Associate Professor and Chair of the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. He worked previously at the Getty Conservation Institute, University of Maryland, and Rhode Island School of Design. His books include The Once and Future New York, on the origins of historic preservation in New York City (winner of the Antoinette Forester Downing Award), and Giving Preservation a History (with Max Page). In 2012–13, Mason held the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize at the American Academy in Rome.

Robert Sullivan is the author of numerous books, including The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City; Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants; The Thoreau You Don’t Know: The Father of Nature Writers on the Importance of Cities, Finance, and Fooling Around; A Whale Hunt, and, most recently, My American Revolution. His stories and essays have been published in magazines such as New York, The New Yorker, and A Public Space. He is a contributing editor to Vogue.

Table of Contents

Robert Sullivan

Wildness, Disease, and the Changing Civic Landscape: The History of North Brother Island
Randall Mason

The Photographs
Christopher Payne

Christopher Payne


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