The City Concealed: Behind the Scenes at North Brother Island

July 8th, 2009

Once a quarantine hospital to separate infected individuals from the general public, today North Brother Island is a protected heron habitat. Access to the island is extremely limited due to the sensitivity of the bird-breeding environment. Daniel Ross of The City Concealed gives his take on filming the island for this edition of Inside Thirteen.

by Daniel Ross
Producer, The City Concealed

When we met Liz Craig and Dr. Susan Elbin, our guides from New York City Audubon, I asked them if we should beware anything on North Brother Island. “Sink holes,” they said. “And poison ivy.” Like an idiot, I had forgotten to wear long sleeves for our shoot of The City Concealed: North Brother Island Bird Sanctuary.

Shooting on North Brother Island proved tremendously difficult. The majority of the island is overgrown with dense thickets, shoulder-high bushes, and groping vines. There were places where we could’ve used machetes to hack our way through the growth. Fortunately, I made it through the shoot without
developing any serious rashes.

The beginning of our journey took us through the thickest woods on the island. Our guides kept a lookout for signs of colonial water bird nesting. As you’ll see in the video, they didn’t find any recent nests. Still, life surrounded us – we came upon a termite nest erupting with what looked like new spawn – along with reminders of death and decay, like the skeleton of a duck strewn in the weeds. And then, of course, the ghosts of humans come and gone, both recently (Snapple bottles, bags of Cooler Ranch) and in years past (the crumbling buildings abandoned half a century ago).

The silent, derelict structures on the island – Riverside Hospital and its surrounding buildings – both lure and repel visitors: too intriguing to avoid, but ominous and dangerous to visit. It’s almost as if they’re hiding under the tree canopy. As we beat a path through the bushes, we’d catch glimpses of a brick wall or a crumbled façade, and then we’d push back a particularly thick branch and emerge in a clearing with a wide view of the full ruins.

The existence of these ruins poses a dilemma. One the one hand, they’re a fascinating sight, and a window into the rich history of turn-of-the-century New York City. On the other hand, their existence encourages illicit visits to North Brother Island by curious urban explorers, which disturbs the delicate colonial water bird habitat.

Admittedly, my interest in North Brother Island began with the ruins. But after speaking with our Audubon guides, I understood the importance of the island as a bird sanctuary too. As Susan Elbin explains in the video, the way Nature — both flora and fauna — has reclaimed the island really speaks to the power of our environment. Still, since we were on the island, I was hopeful we’d get a glimpse inside the buildings.

When we first reached the hospital there was some hesitation about whether we should go in. Our guides weren’t comfortable taking responsibility for our safety on their watch, but we assured them they wouldn’t be held accountable if something happened. So we entered.

The interior of the building is spackled in bird droppings. Corridors and stairwells run several paces before they’re swallowed by darkness. If you listen closely, you can hear things moving in the dark, as if somebody kicked a fallen piece of plaster.

The roof of the hospital opens to a 360-degree vista of the city, which you can see in our video. To the southwest, Manhattan looms out in the distant haze. A couple miles to the east lay Rikers Island and LaGuardia Airport. The planes fly directly over North Brother Island as they leave the tarmac. Every thirty seconds or so the sucking roar of jet engines interrupts the stillness on the island.

Our guides were reluctant to stay on the island for more than a couple hours for fear of disturbing the wildlife, so we came and went fairly quickly. As we motored out on our dinghy, heading for the Bronx, I looked back at North Brother Island and watched the trees bend in the wind, revealing the red bricks of the buildings concealed within. I thought about something Audubon researcher Liz Craig said earlier in the day: that she felt privileged to be able to visit the island, even if only once a year.