Education / Environment

North Brother island could soon be a boat ride away

The abandoned sanitarium on North Brothers Island. Photo: Maria Torres

Elected officials want abandoned island open to the public; wildlife conservation will be key

It was the quarantine home for Typhoid Mary in the late 1800s, and the site of the wreck of the passenger steamship General Slocum that killed more than a thousand passengers in 1904. It served as a housing facility for World War II veterans and drug addicts in the 1950s and is now a sanctuary for the black-crowned night heron. It’s North Brother Island, and if city officials have their way, it could be a five-minute boat ride from Hunts Point.

North Brother Island is an overlooked historic gem that lies in the East River between the Port Morris shoreline and Rikers Island, just west of Barretto Point Park. The island closed as a drug abuse facility in the early 1960s and has been uninhabited ever since. Nine years ago it acquired by the New York City Parks Department, but it is still closed to the general public.

“North Brother Island is such an interesting place, and it technically hasn’t been touched by people for 50 years,” said Maria Torres, the president and founder of The Point who toured the island with city council members in October. The visit included a walk through the deteriorating hospital building, an old stock house and a library building. “Seeing the buildings and the history of the island was a really educational experience,” said Torres.

This tour was part of an initiative by several council members, including Hunts Point’s Rafael Salamanca Jr. and Mark Levine, who represents Morningside Heights in Manhattan, to open the island for public access. The cornerstone of this initiative is a study funded by the council members and a grant given by the J.M. Kaplan Fund, a philanthropic organization that helps fund the preservation of historical sites, which will determine the potential for opening the island.

The study, which will be released this month, includes research on the island and its history through historical archives, geographic surveys of the island, conversations with the Parks Department and the study of similar public-access islands in other parts of the world.

Ryan Monell, Salamanca’s press secretary, said the island had a history that is essential to the fabric of New York. While the buildings are in bad shape, and the council member considers it a priority to protect the bird habitat, “it’s a beautiful island and it’s accessible,” he said. “But a lot of work needs to be done.”

Randall Mason, the chair of the historic preservation department at the University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City,” is conducting the study under PennPraxis, a part of the university’s School of Design. The study will look at how the island could be conserved, managed and curated while still being a public park.

“North Brother Island is a public park, but public access can mean different things. The fragility of the island must be considered,” said Mason, who believes that while the park could potentially be opened to the public, the island could never be a traditional historical site in that it couldn’t be open to anyone at any time. Access would have to be limited.

His study will look at the evolution of the island and its ecological development while also examining how public use of the island could be balanced so as to not disturb the current ecosystem. Once the study is completed, it will be shown to elected officials and then presented to the City Council later in November, Mason said.

PennPraxis conducted other studies on North Brother Island in 2005 and 2015, concluding the first time that the island should be managed as an ecological preserve and remain wild. The study found that the herons were using the island as a nesting area and the birds were more important than opening the island to the public. However, the 2015 study found that the herons were no longer nesting on the island; rather, they were just using it as a sanctuary. The findings of this second study led to the idea of bringing people to the island.

Mason said that the island is under “Forever Wild” status, an initiative of the Parks Department to protect and preserve the most ecologically valuable lands within the five boroughs. The expansive marshes on the island are what attract the herons.

Upsetting the bird sanctuary isn’t the only hindrance to opening the island up for the public.  According to Mason and Monell, the process of making the island easily accessible would also be expensive. Since there are no longer docks on the island, for their tour, the visitors got to the island using motorboats and debarked by scrambling across old wooden piles. Building docks would be a first and expensive step in the process. According to Torres, the docks at Hunts Point Riverside Park could be a good launching spot for boats to take people to the island.

“The danger and difficulty of getting there while maintaining the fragility of the resources there is the biggest challenge,” Mason said.  Still, he said, “let the change happen and we can interpret it.” One solution he offered was providing “virtual access,” a sort of digital interactive program that would give the public an understanding of what’s there just off the shores of Hunts Point.

Opening North Brother Island as a New York City public park and historic site would add to the historic appeal of the Bronx, particularly Hunts Point, Torres noted. She imagines that the island could be used for educational history lessons and classes as well as classes on the environment.

“It would open up their eyes about where they live, their community and how to take better care of it and see a better future for it,” Torres said.

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