North Brother Island is situated in New York City‘s East River between the mainland Bronx and Rikers Island. Now uninhabited and abandoned, the island provided an inspirational setting for a Second Life sim.
The island took its name from Adriaen Block, a Dutchman who explored the Atlantic Coast between 1611 and 1614. He named the two islands – north and south – “de Gesellen,” which translates as “the wayfarers” or the “journeymen” or “brethren” – hence “brothers.”
North Brother Island has a fascinating and complex history. It was home to a tuberculosis hospital – Riverside Hospital, which moved here from Roosevelt Island in 1885 – that closed in the late 1930s.
The hospital has seen more than its fair share of tragic stories. Its most famous inmate was surely Mary Mallon, or “Typhoid Mary” (1869-1938).
Mallon, an Irish-American cook, was the first person in the United States to be identified as an asymptomatic carrier of typhoid fever. She was presumed to have infected 51 people, three of whom died, over the course of her career as a cook. Mallon refused to accept that she was infectious, and was twice forcibly isolated by public health authorities. She spent the last 23 years of her life – from 1915 until 1938 – in isolation at Riverside Hospital.
Mallon’s case seems especially tragic today. She was undoubtedly a victim of prejudice – she was both Irish and a woman; she was unmarried; she was a domestic servant – and was punished severely and repeatedly for something over which she had no understanding and no control. Little wonder that, more than eighty years after she died, her story seems as compelling as ever …
Following World War II North Brother Island was inhabited by war veterans during the nationwide housing shortage, before being abandoned again in the early 1950s. It was then was used as the site of a treatment centre for adolescent drug addicts, but the centre closed amidst controversy – it was said that heroin addicts were held against their will and locked in rooms until ‘clean’ – in the 1960s.
The island was then abandoned completely, becoming – alongside the smaller South Brother Island – a sanctuary for herons and a variety other wading birds such as cormorants and egrets.
Various New York City mayors have wondered what to do with North Brother Island: John Lindsay considered selling it, Ed Koch wanted to convert the island into housing for the homeless, while others explored using it as an extension of the jail at Rikers Island.
At present, North Brother Island is managed by NYC Parks and off-limits to the public – visits are allowed only for “compelling academic and scientific purposes”. One proposal currently being considered is to re-open the island for limited “light-touch, environmentally sensitive” public access, although the dilapidated and downright dangerous state of many of the buildings and structures there would surely necessitate a good deal of costly rebuilding – or demolition.
The island is surely a tricky place to get around. Many of the buildings – including the massive gantry crane situated on the main dock – are in a state of near-collapse.
The roads and paths have been swallowed up by vegetation. Visitors must be on constant lookout for falling debris, while beneath their feet, gaping manholes and broken branches are covered by untamed weeds. Poison ivy is omnipresent.
For our reconstruction of North Brother Island, we have relied on maps which contain details of where specific buildings – the hospital itself, staff quarters, the physician’s house, the morgue, tennis courts, and so on – were located. (For reference, we have labelled and dated the island’s buildings inworld.) These maps help to convey what a busy and vibrant place this must have been.
In addition, our interpretation of North Brother Island as it is today has been helped by looking at arial pictures such as this one …
Most importantly, we have drawn on the photographs taken by Christopher Payne and published in his book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City.
Payne was one of a handful of photographers permitted to visit the island, and he spent around five years gathering his pictures. Here are some examples from this stunning series …
There are also some excellent videos …
As we researched North Brother Island we were struck both by the history of the place itself, and its remarkable location. The subtitle of Payne’s book – “the last unknown place in New York City” – sums this up perfectly. North Brother Island is close to the heart of this great city, and yet for most New Yorkers it is surely ignored – undiscovered and unknown. Tragedies unfolded here that are long forgotten, just as the buildings in which they took place have been eroded by time.