City Council members are proposing a way to take legal trips to the abandoned island
Good news for those New Yorkers obsessed with the city’s lesser-known reaches: it may become a lot easier—and actually legal—to take a trip to North Brother Island. This 20-acre island, off the Bronx in the East River, opened in the 1880s as a quarantine site famously known for housing Typhoid Mary. The city shuttled away sick people across the East River until after World War II, when the buildings housed veterans.
In the 1950s, the hospital was converted to an experimental drug rehab center for heroin-addicted teens. The program ended in 1963, after issues of corruption and high costs, and the island has been completely empty since.
The NYC Parks Department has controlled North Brother Island since 2001, designating it as a bird sanctuary. But it’s been against the law, not to mention very difficult, for visitors to go and poke around the abandoned ruins. (Some brave souls still pull it off!) But that all may be changing, according to New York Magazine. There are some City Council members, including Mark Levine and Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverto, that are proposing a way to take legal trips. Levine, chairman of the Parks Committee, first floated the idea back in 2014.
The Parks Department has commissioning a study by the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design to help find ways to make the island more accessible. According to Levine, it wouldn’t look like “the next Governor’s Island”—rather, there would be opportunities for students, explorers and NYC history buffs to visit in person. As Levine told New York, “It’s not the same to look at pictures, you have to walk on the island to feel the enchantment.”
The study is expected to wrap in the next two weeks, and will first be presented to the City Council’s Bronx delegation in November. The Council’s Parks Committee will then schedule a hearing in December about North Brother Island, as well as other restricted spaces like Hart’s Island, to explore the possibility of allowing trips.
There are, of course, a lot of challenges with opening up a space like North Brother. The structures—which date back to the late 19th century—are badly falling apart, and the land hasn’t been tended to in decades. A restoration to make it safe for visitors would likely be very expensive. Though there are no real plans for the island on the table yet, past surveys suggest that the two buildings most likely for restoration are the male dormitory, one of the island’s original structures, and the coal house, built in 1904 and still in decent condition.
The city has fretted over the future of the island since it shuttered in the 1960s—Mayor John Lindsay proposed selling it and Mayor Ed Koch proposed housing the homeless there. In the 1990s, the city considered expanding the jail facilities from nearby Riker’s Island, but it never happened. While it looks unlikely North Brother will be ready for visitors in the near future, it’s certainly intriguing to wonder what a new chapter of public access could mean for the haunting place.
- NYC’s North Brother Island, Abandoned for 50 Years, Might Finally Be Opened to (Legal) Visitors [New York Magazine]