North Brother Island remains a hidden nature site on East River

New_York_Daily_News_logo.pngBy Jillian Jorgensen

Getting to North Brother Island has all the trappings of secretive exclusivity.

You’ve got to get invited, sign a waiver, meet in an out-of-the-way spot in Hunts Point and charter a boat just to get to the 20 acres of abandoned, overgrown city parkland in the East River.

But Councilman Mark Levine believes the city should change that.

“North Brother Island is the most magical place in New York City. It’s where history meets nature meets legend,” he said of the island.

“And most New Yorkers will never have a chance to see it unless we can find a way to open it up to the public.”

Located between Port Morris and Rikers Island, North Brother Island has been at turns a complex of hospitals for infectious diseases, the involuntary home of Typhoid Mary, the infamous cook who didn’t display symptoms of the deadly disease but kept spreading it to her clients, and a complex of housing for veterans after World War II, as well as a rehab for young people addicted to drugs.

But since the 1960s, it’s been abandoned — its streets and tennis courts invisible beneath vines, wooden buildings crumbling away, and its massive brick structures doing their best against the elements, which have crept inside them in the form of out of place plants and crumbling floors.

It’s quiet, save for the cries of a hawk and the drone of airplanes overhead, and feels far from the industrial stretch of Hunts Point where the tour launched on boats organized by Rocking the Boat, a nonprofit that helps kids build boats and sail them in the Bronx River.

The decay and overgrowth is a fascinating window it what happens when people disappear and nature takes over — but it means the island isn’t exactly the kind of place where you can gallivant.

Tours, like one the Daily News took Friday with Levine, Parks officials and other elected officials, are rare, and visitors aren’t allowed to enter or even get to close the aging buildings — once the nurse’s quarters, men’s dormitories, and the towering but uninvitingly named Tuberculosis Pavilion.

And yet it’s the meeting of crumbling history and new nature that makes the island so enchanting to people like Levine.

“We’re not looking for a hot dog vendors and food trucks. We’re thinking of very eco-concious, environmentally sensitive, curated tours that allow people to see the island in its natural state,” he said.

But even that will be a heavy lift. There’s no dock — visitors on Friday debarked boats pulled up against an old gantry crane landing and climbed out — and some of the structures would have to be shored up to prevent people from being hurt by falling bricks.

“That’s no small undertaking,” he said. “But it’s an investment that would pay off with what would be a spell-binding experience for most New Yorkers.”

First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh said being open for more frequent curated tours was certainly a possibility “at some point in the future.”

“From a Parks perspective, from a management perspective, it’s still a pretty rough site. And to bring people here is challenging,” he said.

“It’d just be very difficult to keep people safe while they’re enjoying the kind of experience that we did today.”

And giving them more than that — freedom to roam without minders — would be even more difficult and cost “an enormous amount of money.

“But it’s one of those wonderful things to think about,” Kavanagh mused.

“Because if you look at the city, 30 years ago people were looking at Brooklyn Bridge Park and seeing the old piers that were abandoned there and what could possibly be done. And today we have one of the most beautiful parks in the city if not the world.”

Parks, which took it over as a habitat for migrating egrets and herons, has already sunken investments into the parkland. Contractors have taken care of some immediately pressing safety issues, covering up holes left in the ground from an old system of steam heat tunnels.

Vegetation has been removed along paths — though it grows back pretty quickly — and horticulture experts have worked to kill invasive species and plant native ones, making the area more popular with winged visitors who don’t face the same restrictions as human ones.

While it would take a lot to open it up to the broader public, there is political will from local elected officials — though the bigger question might be whether there’s the money.

“There’s definitely a potential to preserve one of these buildings — that’s why I’m asking all these direct questions about funding. I want to know the cost,” Councilman Rafael Salamanca, who represents the uninhabited island, said during his third visit Friday.

It’s also in the district of Assemblyman Marcos Crespos, chairman of the Bronx Democratic Party, who also came along for the tour.

“The South Bronx in particular and Hunts Point has been the epicenter of a lot of environmental justice advocates and organizations that want to rebuild our community in a way that honors its history,” he said. “And I think this is a continuation of that same vision.”

Levine has commissioned an extensive study of the options for expanding access to the island, which was recently completed and will be the subject of hearings to come.

“The truth is, if North Brother Island were off the coast of Tribeca, it would have been opened up to the public decades ago,” Levine said.

“And because it’s off the coast of the South Bronx, it’s been forgotten and neglected.”

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