Update: in keeping with Serene and Jade’s approach to offering their region builds for approximately a month before moving to a new location and project, North Brother Island has closed, and SLurls therefore removed from this article.
For their July 2019 region design, Serene Footman and Jade Koltai bring us their vision for what photographer Christopher Payne called The Last Unknown Place in New York City – North Brother Island; and like all of their builds, it is a true wonder to behold and explore.
North Brother Island is one of two small islands located on New York’s East River, its slightly smaller companion now being known as South Brother Island. Both were claimed in 1614 by the Dutch West India Company and originally called De Gesellen (“the companions”), which eventually became transposed to “the Brothers”. Both island have a fascinating history, with that of North Brother perhaps being the more complex – and the more tragic.
In 1904, it was the final resting place of the General Slocum, a massive side-wheel paddle steamer built in the 1890s, she caught fire whilst carrying 1,342 passengers and through a combination of neglect by the owners, foolhardiness by the Captain (he failed to use opportunities to either make a safe landing or run the ship aground before the fire overwhelmed the vessel), 1,021 of those souls perished either aboard the ship or as a result of drowning in the East River – many of their bodies washing up on North Brother Island in addition to as the vessel running aground there.
In addition, Serene goes on to note the island was the home to:
Riverside Hospital, which moved here from Roosevelt Island in 1885 … 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.
– Serene Footman, writing about North Brother Island
Riverside Hospital, originally founded in the 1850s, was designed to isolate and treat victims of smallpox, with its mission expanding to cover other diseases requiring quarantine. In this role – as Serene also notes – it took in those stricken with typhoid, including “Typhoid Mary”, Mary Mallon. An Irish-American cook, she was the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever. It is believed she infected between 47 and 51 people during her career as a cook, and was twice forcibly isolated by public health authorities, the second time finally passing away in Riverside Hospital in 1938, after a total of nearly three decades in isolation.
In 1943, a large tuberculosis pavilion was constructed on the island but was never used for that purpose, already being obsolete by the time it opened. Instead, it was used as a dormitory by a number of New York City’s colleges, students transported to and from the island via the East 134th Street Ferry Terminal.
In the late 1950s / early 1960s, the same ferries were used to transport adolescents to the island to be “treated” for drug abuse. The idea had been to provide care for up to 100 males and 50 females away from jails where drugs could still be obtained, with stays at the pavilion being for up to six months. But the hospital gained a reputation for keeping adolescent addicts against their will – it merely required their parents to place them there, with or without the agreement of the courts. Once there, the young people were frequently locked away and left to go cold turkey as a means to break their addiction.
The hospital finally closed in the 1960s, and North Brother Island abandoned, its many building and facilities – including the ferry wharves and giant gantry crane, many of the hospital buildings and facilities, left to rot. However, many of them have now been captured in this interpretation of the island by Serene and Jade.
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 in-world.)
– Serene Footman, writing about North Brother Island
In addition they have called upon the resources of Christopher Payne’s catalogue of photos of the island: North Brother Island The Last Unknown Place in New York City. The result of five years of being allowed to visit the island – today both North and South Brother islands are designated wildlife sanctuaries, and so protected (North Island is additionally regarded as being too dangerous for the public given the state of its buildings) – Payne carefully constructed a visual history of the island. This, together with their own extensive research, have allowed Jade and Serene have produced a region that powerfully captures North Island as it stands today, its past history, and the pathos and pain of that history.
The latter is particularly well captured in the small details to be found throughout the region. Take, for example, the bed frame converted to a seat and that sits on a little dock. A suitcase sits behind it, while a short distance away, a little motor boat sits on the water; the entire scene brings to mind the longing of the young people held on the island to return home.
To say North Brother Island is visually stunning is to do it a disservice. As with all of Serene and Jade’s builds, it must be seen to be appreciated and understood – and there are plenty of places within it that allow visitors to contemplate on the history of the island – or whatever else might be on their minds.
- North Brother Island blog post by Serene Footman