The remains of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, 2006.
|Location||East River, New York City|
|borough||The Bronx, formerly Queens County|
North and South Brother Islands are a pair of small islands located in New York City's East River between the mainland Bronx and Rikers Island. North Brother Island was once the site of a hospital, but is now uninhabited and designated as a bird sanctuary. Until 1964, South Brother Island was part of Queens County, having been incorporated into Long Island City in 1870, but it is now part of Bronx County. It had long been privately owned, but it was purchased by the city in 2007.
The northern of the islands was uninhabited until 1885, when Riverside Hospital moved there from Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Riverside Hospital was founded in the 1850s as the Smallpox Hospital to treat and isolate victims of that disease. Its mission eventually expanded to other quarantinable diseases. The last such facility to be established on the island was the Tuberculosis Pavilion, which opened in 1943. The Pavilion was rendered obsolete within the decade due to the increasing availability, acceptance, and use of the tuberculosis vaccine after 1945.
The island was the site of the wreck of the General Slocum, a steamship that burned on June 15, 1904. Over 1,000 people died either from the fire on board the ship, or from drowning before the ship beached on the island's shores.
According to Joseph Mitchell – a reporter for newspapers and for The New Yorker – the island was the site of many outings of "The Honorable John McSorley Pickle, Beefsteak, Baseball Nine, and Chowder Club" organized by John McSorley of McSorley's Old Ale House; photos of the outings are featured on the walls of the bar.
Following World War II, the island housed war veterans who were students at local colleges and their families. After the nationwide housing shortage abated, the island was again abandoned until the 1950s, when a center opened to treat adolescent drug addicts. The facility claimed it was the first to offer treatment, rehabilitation, and education facilities to young drug offenders. Heroin addicts were confined to this facility and locked in a room until they were clean. Many of them believed they were being held against their will. By the early 1960s widespread staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the facility to close. The facility is said to have been the inspiration for the Broadway play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, which helped to launch the career of Al Pacino.
Since the mid-1960s, New York City mayors have considered a variety of uses for the island. John Lindsay, for instance, proposed to sell it, and Ed Koch thought it could be converted into housing for the homeless. The city also considered using it as an extension of the jail at Rikers Island.
Now serving as a sanctuary for herons and other wading shorebirds, the island is presently abandoned and off-limits to the public. Most of the original hospitals' buildings still stand, but are heavily deteriorated and in danger of collapse, and a dense forest conceals the ruined hospital buildings. In October 2014, New York City Council member Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council's Parks Committee, led a delegation to visit the island, and declared his desire afterwards to open the island for limited "light-touch, environmentally sensitive" public access. In October 2016, New York magazine reported that the Council had commissioned a study from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design, followed by a public hearing, on how the island could be converted into a park with controlled access by the public.
In the mid-19th century, Alfred W. White, who was in charge of public health for the city, used South Brother Island as the city's first dump, where garbage, manure, offal and carcasses were sent to help clean up the city, which consisted at that time of only Manhattan and its islands. However, the island is only about a half-mile from the Bronx and the country estates of the city's rich, such as William Ligett and Jacob Lorillard, both scions of tobacco families. It was also close enough to the shoreline villages of Queens County to be noxious to them as well, and the combination of Queens villages and wealthy Bronxites convinced the Queens County Supreme Court to stop the dumping.
Jacob Ruppert, a brewery magnate and early owner of the New York Yankees, had a summer house on the island that burned down in 1909. No one has lived on the island since then, and there are no structures extant. Ruppert owned the island until the late 1930s, and in 1944 it was purchased by John Gerosa, president of the Metropolitan Roofing Supply Company, who had wanted to construct a never-built summer retreat for his workers on the island.
In November 2007, the island was purchased in a complicated transaction in which $2 million of Federal grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program was allocated to the Wildlife Conservation Society and The POINT Community Development Corporation. The Trust for Public Land then acquired the island on behalf of those organizations, and then donated it to the city's Parks Department as a wildlife sanctuary. It is managed by the city's Parks Department and the Bronx Zoo. South Brother Island was the 13th island to come under the Parks Department's jurisdiction.
North Brother Island is a designated wildlife sanctuary. From the 1980s through the early 2000s, North Brother Island supported one of the area's largest nesting colonies of black-crowned night heron. However, as of 2008 this species has abandoned the island for unknown reasons. Barn swallows use the abandoned structures for nesting, and can be seen flying over the island.
On South Brother Island, dense brush supports a major nesting colony of several species of birds, notably black-crowned night heron, great egret, snowy egret, and double-crested cormorant. New York City Audubon has monitored nesting colonies on the island for over twenty years.
In June 2009, North Brother Island was featured in episode 8 ("Armed and Defenseless") of Life After People on the History Channel. It was used as an example of what would happen to structures after 45 years without humans. It was featured in the Broad City episode "Working Girls" and was mentioned in the episode "Twaining Day", It was also featured in the Unforgettable episode "The Island".
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