Photo compliments of Christopher Payne
From outer space, this place doesn’t even exist. It’s little more than a tiny, dark speck in the East River. From the city, it’s an unreachable specter, looming just between the Bronx and Riker’s Island, yet inaccessible to New York as we know it (save for illicit boat trips undertaken by curious minds). North Brother Island indeed remains one of the last places untouched by our modern metropolis — and that’s exactly why photographer Christopher Payne dedicated five years of his life to exploring it.
His new book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City, just hit shelves this past May. In it, he not only showcases the stunning images he’s captured over half a decade on the cryptic isle, but also uncovers some of its lesser-known history, and the lessons it taught him along the way. “It’s easy to go there and feel connected to the past because it’s all around you,” Chris says. “But what I see these photographs being about is equally the future, what it would be like if people suddenly left. I think people look at North Brother from the outside in, but actually, in a way, you can go to North Brother and look back at New York. It’s a way to see the rest of the city more clearly.”
Chris’ first encounters with the island were auspicious. Back in 2006, he found himself working with the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance to photograph sites along the East River. “They’re a watchdog for what’s happening on the rivers,” Chris says. “They’re whole pitch was to try to make the waterfront more accessible to people — the inverse of what it was because it used to be really industrial.” It was during these trips that his interest in North Brother Island was first piqued, so Chris got to work setting up a process of simple symbiosis. While the nonprofit couldn’t land their boat on the island, they could put him in touch with the city’s parks department, which still maintains jurisdiction over North Brother.
One of the first, and most noticeable, epiphanies the island had to offer on Chris’ many trips there were its stark contradictions. “The island is full of contrast, and I think the first thing you feel when you go there, when you step off the boat, it’s kind of overwhelming,” Chris says. “You’re still in the city but you’re in a whole other world. You walk into the space and it becomes a forest, and you suddenly realize you’re completely alone even though you’re still in the city and you can still hear the Mr. Softee truck.”
He also points out that it’s one of the only places in New York where you can quite literally be alone. “It’s like being in the park and having it all to yourself — and being stuck there,” Chris says. “If the boat leaves, you’re stranded there.” As scary as that could be — a solo trip on a pitch black abandoned island? Nope, nope, nope! — there’s an allure to the forgotten surroundings. “The island is in various states of decay,” Chris says. “With the change of seasons, you get to see something new each time.”
Since there wasn’t much left behind, Chris spent his time looking for clues to the past, hidden underneath the graffiti on the walls and buried under the rubble on the floors. “Your imagination would really have to compensate for the lack of tangible evidence,” he says.
The city first used the island in 1885 after moving the Riverside Hospital there from its original home on Roosevelt Island. The hospital closed in 1938 shortly after the death of its most infamous patient, Mary Mallon, commonly known as Typhoid Mary. She had been quarantined there for more than 20 years after infecting as many as 51 people with the disease. “On one side of the tuberculosis building, it has a curved front with wings and balconies,” Chris says. “It’s in the best condition, and that’s the part of the island I would always find myself going back to. There were open wards, great views from the roof and lots of rooms to explore, even though everything valuable and portable had already been taken away.”
After the hospital shuttered, the island was used to house World War II vets during the city’s housing shortage. The buildings became dormitories for the soldiers, and their families, while they attended college. But as things improved over in the five boroughs, the island emptied out once again, until the 1950s when the buildings were reincarnated as a juvenile drug treatment center. It was here that Chris discovered that there actually was one thing left behind: books. And lots of ‘em. “These were sort of what kids would have been reading then,” he says. “It’s ironic how little we value books in our culture that this was the only thing they left. There were hundreds of these things. I spent a day looking through and arranging the ones that still had color on them.”
The most surprising find, though, happened after Hurricane Sandy crossed paths with the island in October 2012. The storm, knocked over large trees around the island, quite literally unearthing North Brother’s history. “When they were tipped over, you could actually see the sidewalk,” Chris says. “The buildings themselves are only so interesting, but when you’re walking along, you start to realize there’s this whole system of sidewalks and streets beneath the dirt that has swept onto the island, where plants and trees have grown up.”
A year later, he made his last trip over to the island, in the fall of 2013, but now that the book is complete, we wondered whether there was anything else he would add if he could. “I think standing on that island, looking back at the city, I would’ve loved to see this island right after closed,” Chris says. “But you’re always sort of 50 years too late.” Ain’t that the truth though?