Once home to numerous quarantine hospitals, North Brother Island in New York City's East River is currently unsafe and illegal to visit. City Council members are working to open the 20-acre ghostly isle to the public, however, considering it an important piece of history as well as an area that’s visually spellbinding.
Now full of decaying buildings and hospitals overrun with lush greenery, North Brother Island was where the famous Typhoid Mary was sent into quarantine. Born Mary Mallon in Co. Tyrone in Ireland, she emigrated to the US at fifteen and became the first US resident identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with deadly typhoid fever.
Mary worked as a cook for the affluent. She was symptomless and unaware of her disease and, as a result, she infected 53 people, three of whom died, through her cooking. She was arrested and quarantined for the remainder of her life, and died in isolation but not before becoming a minor celebrity of sorts.
“We need to find a way to get people on the island in a safe manner,” City Council member Mark Levine told Gothamist. As chair of the Council’s Parks and Recreation Committee, Levine held a tour of the island for fellow council members to get them on board. As the driving force behind this idea, Levine wants to build momentum and appreciation for the historical Bronx island.
The abandoned island has been virtually untouched in a half a century. and is strongly believed to be haunted. There was a morgue on the island for the many patients who didn’t survive, including Typhoid Mary herself. While the modern experience on the island is beautiful to some, like council-member Levine, many others would consider it to be quite eerie.
“To visit there was an experience unlike any other that I’ve had,” he said, adding that it was visually spellbinding. For years, the island has attracted “urban explorers” who enter illegally, and photographers have reveled in the contrast between the decaying man-made structures that have been completely overrun by nature. It has also become a sanctuary for migrating birds.
“I thought it was important to get policy makers onto the island. There’s so much history,” Levine said, “like how we’ve dealt with epidemics,” he added, a topic been on everyone’s minds since the outbreak of Ebola. “The experience of being completely isolated in the forest with these half decayed beautiful buildings as you faintly hear the background sounds of the city – honks from the Bronx, loudspeakers from Rikers [Island].”
Levine said that any plans for the opening island would take into account its importance as a bird sanctuary other environmental needs. Plans would be “respectful of historic nature,” and work with a number of safety concerns.
One idea Levine has is to make the island a “no-touch” and “limited access” environmental education destination, but he is open to other ideas and wants to conduct a study about the island’s potential.
New York has 13 other abandoned islands under the Parks Department’s jurisdiction, and Levine is set on learning more about each of them, reminding us that New York City is an archipelago: “New Yorkers don’t really think about how we’re on an island – we don’t appreciate it,” he said. “I hope you wouldn’t have to be a City Council Member to see this.”
Click for more pictures of the island while it was inhabited.
UPDATE: At the end of October 2015, Councilmember Levine announced that he had secured a $50,000 grant from the J.M. Kaplan Fund to study how best to make North Brother Island accessible to the public while still preserving its environmental integrity.