North Brother Island lies in the East River, between The Bronx and Queens, just west of Rikers Island and directly under the flight path of departing jets from LaGuardia. It was once the site of Riverside Hospital, a tuberculosis facility later converted to GI housing after WWII. Previously, it was home to the infamous “Typhoid” Mary Mallon during her years of quarantine. Throughout the 1950s, the city operated a drug rehab center for adolescents there, but the hospital closed in 1963, and North Brother was abandoned. Nature slowly reclaimed the island.
Today North Brother Island is a protected heron habitat, owned by the Department of Parks and Recreation. Access to the island is extremely limited due to the sensitivity of the bird-breeding habitat.
In the past, a number of colonial water bird species nested on North Brother Island, including Black-crowned Night Herons, Glossy Ibis, and Great Egrets. Over the last several years, however, the bird population on North Brother Island has declined.
To keep track of colonial water bird populations in the city, the New York City Audubon Society conducts a yearly survey of seventeen islands within New York Harbor, including North Brother Island. This May, The City Concealed joined Dr. Susan Elbin and research associate Liz Craig on their survey to find out whether the herons are back on North Brother Island or nesting elsewhere.
For more about the history of North Brother Island, check out Opacity’s overview (which features some really nice historic images). Also see northbrotherislan.blogspot.com, Forgotten-NY, and bridgeandtunnelclub.
And for a behind-the-scenes glimpse of our experience shooting on the rugged island, read this post.
— Daniel Ross, Producer
This episode wouldn’t have been possible without much help from Dr. Susan Elbin, Elizabeth Craig, New York City Audubon, the David Rumsey Map Collection, and the The New York Public Library. Thank you to all.