The Secret of North Brother Island: The Abandoned New York City Island Where Typhoid Mary Was Held Captive

download.jpgBy Josh Robin

It quarantined patients with communicable diseases, including Typhoid Mary.

It housed drug-addicted teenagers and was the site of New York’s deadliest disaster until September 11th .  Over the years, it has been targeted as a possible location for a homeless shelter, a prison and a dump.

Island paradise it’s not. Still, North Brother Island is, to me, the most arrestingly unique spot in the five boroughs. It has me yearning to return, and hoping one day the public will be given the same chance.

A 22-acre isle in the East River off the South Bronx, North Brother, or NBI, is long abandoned and off-limits. Earlier this month, the City Parks Department accepted my request to visit as part of a NY1 team. After signing a waiver and ingesting all the warnings (asbestos, falling bricks), I boarded a boat from the South Bronx with three lawmakers interested in expanding access to it.

With so much of New York homogenized and corporatized, it jarred me to step onto city land developers haven’t touched. The two-dozen or so structures on North Brother are crumbling and increasingly overtaken by nature: canopies of rapacious vines, shrubs and trees; underfoot, a herbaceous ground cover —including poison ivy—masking paths and roads.

Rounding out this mixed marriage of nature and civilization: herons fly above, seemingly unperturbed by planes from LaGuardia Airport; beyond the river water: a stunning skyline view.

The buildings, some dating to the late 19th Century, are deteriorated, some likely beyond repair. Interpreting them fell to our guide, John Krawchuk, executive director of the Parks Department Historic House Trust and an expert on the island.

"It's challenging dealing with ruins. They're in a dangerous condition currently,” he said. “It isn't safe for the public to be near them. But there's a certain romance that people have looking back at our important history in New York City, seeing these buildings as reminders of that."

Native settlement is unclear; a Dutch captain, Adriaen Block, named North and adjacent South Brother after discovering them between 1611 and 1614, claiming them for the Dutch West India Company.

North Brother’s medical history begins in the 1880s as a quarantine for patients with such illnesses as tuberculosis and typhoid fever—including the disease’s most famous patient, “Typhoid Mary” Mallon, the famous asymptomatic carrier housed against her will in the early 20th century. (The approximate location of her waterfront cottage, and an adjacent church, are buried under the flora).

For decades, poor immigrants like Mallon formed the bulk of the patient population. To peer now into the darkened shells of hospital wards and residences is to frightfully imagine their collective experience on the island. They were sick—or told they were carrying illnesses. Through the windows they could glimpse the city they had to leave. Despite the gorgeous fall day we visited, memories of the scene made me shudder.

Island life isolated them from spreading pestilence, but the waterways at that time offered little of the calm we enjoy today. They were clogged with boats and filth—the air heavy with coal smoke.

“Suspended by water in the middle of a very big city—and you've got an extraordinary feeling of loneliness, of being alone, which is really uncommon in New York City,” said Randall Mason, chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate Program in Historic Preservation, who has carried out preservation and planning studies of the island with PennPraxis, the outreach arm of Penn’s School of Design.

Punctuating the horror, the island had its own morgue and lab for analyzing phlegm (“the sputum ward”). And then in 1904, the General Slocum, a boat chartered by members of a German-American community largely from the Lower East Side, caught fire off the island. More than 1,000 people died—a number only eclipsed almost a century later in the attacks on the Twin Towers.

The island experience isn’t all morbid dreariness. We also spent some time in the shade of the neo-Georgian Nurses’ Home, built in 1904. It’s in relatively decent shape, allowing you to visualize where these long-forgotten caregivers spent their downtime when not tending to so many sick.

Advances in antibiotics made such extreme isolation unnecessary and in 1946 the hospital turned into housing for returning soldiers studying under the GI Bill at New York’s colleges. The male dorm became the “Island Nursery School” for soldiers’ kids. After the state’s lease expired in 1951, the City regained control and the island again transformed, this time to a home for young drug addicts (marijuana was seen as particularly insidious). Pictures from the time show toughs facing away from the camera.

The limited drug treatment success didn’t merit the cost, and in 1963, the island began its long dormancy —with the City and State considering unpalatable options like the dump and jail. All the while, nature took over. As New York flirted with bankruptcy in the 1970s, officials even tried selling the island to the highest bidder.

Enter Bob Abrams.

“I said 'You have to be crazy—this is not a normal piece of land. This is an island!” the then-Bronx Borough President (and later New York Attorney General) told me. “‘How many islands do we have within a stone's throw - a few hundred feet - of New York City?'"

Abrams marshaled enough votes at the now defunct Board of Estimate to block the sale.

“My main goal was to preserve it—in public hands—not to have it sold at an auction,” said Abrams, 79, a partner at the law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan. “Who knows? An oil company could have come and bought that island and put pretty ugly storage tanks there." There was also talk of a casino.

Instead, since 2001, the Parks Department has control— but it’s wild parkland, not an open park. Officials say they’re open to discussions about “limited curated tours” but there are “considerable safety and monetary impediments to greater, more regular public access.”

It would likely cost millions of dollars to build a serviceable dock (getting out of the boat is tricky now), along with blazing a path, and ensuring at least a building or two doesn’t deteriorate further.

It would also require the City to focus funds on a remote corner when more accessible public parks need care. But if the City exercised some flexibility and ingenuity, including marshalling private donations, to preserve these relics of New York’s history of immigration, public health and nature, local school kids from the South Bronx would find in North Brother the parkland and waterfront access sorely missing from their communities. NBI is just off the water from what has been labeled the nation’s poorest Congressional district.

“It's a powerful story about this incredible resource which is not off the coast of TriBeCa—it’s off the coast of the South Bronx,” said Mark Levine, a Manhattan councilman who chairs the Parks committee and is leading the bid to expand access with guided tours.

Hopefully it happens soon.

And if there is a ribbon cutting, there are plenty of people meriting a mention beyond the usual present-day dignitaries.

I suggest a plaque acknowledging these:

The patients and medical professional whose now-anonymous existences on the island helped form today’s knowledge of preventing and treating communicable diseases.

And Bob Abrams for having the foresight and guts to ensure North Brother forever remains a public park.

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