Photographer Christopher Payne’s Journey to Abandoned North Brother Island

Denisse Moreno |

Author and photographer Christopher Payne tells the story of an uninhabited island in New York City.

Christopher Payne’s book, North Brother Island, the Last Unknown Place in New York City, takes readers on a journey to an abandoned island. “There’s really nothing like North Brother Island in New York City,” said Payne. “It’s a secret hiding in plain sight.”

Located across from the Bronx near Rikers Island, North Brother Island has been closed to the public since 1963 . “It’s an uninhabited island of ruins in New York City,” Payne said. “The last thing you would expect to see.”

Payne is a photographer based in New York City who specializes in architecture and industrial landscapes. He first heard about North Brother Island in 2004 while photographing  another project along the East River. In 2008, he submitted a proposal to document the location and was given free access by New York City’s Parks and Recreation Department.

“When you first step on the island you realize that you are completely alone. It’s actually a very transformative experience because one minute you’re in the city, you’re amongst people, you hear the sights and sounds of the city and then you get on a boat and just being on the water in a small boat is a very transformative, meditative experience,” Payne said. “Suddenly you’re on it and you’re surrounded by abandoned buildings.”

While Payne did research for his North Brother Island project, he went through archival photos and found the same streetlamps, hydrants and roads in the photos. “This landscape has grown up and it’s lush and it’s overgrown like a jungle and you begin to wonder about what this place was like,” he said.

From the 1880s to the 1960s, thousands of people called North Brother Island home. It was used primarily as a quarantine hospital in the 1880s until World War II when housing units were built for returning soldiers. North Brother Island is also known as the final home of Mary Mallon, or “Typhoid Mary,” who infected scores of New Yorkers in the early 1900s. Authorities built her a small cottage and she became one of the island’s most famous occupants.

Ironically, the biggest tragedy on North Brother Island was not disease related, but was the sinking of the steamship General Slocum which killed 1,021 people. From the 1950s through 1963, North Brother Island was home to a drug treatment facility for juvenile delinquents which was later shut down along with the rest of the island.

“They walked away from it,” Payne said. “They literally shut off the lights, shut off the power, probably thinking they would use it again like they had so many times.”

Payne visited many times during different seasons to photograph the same structures. The book includes photographs of North Brother Island’s facilities before and after Hurricane Sandy as well as archival photographs. “It’s not a place where you want to run around and take a million snapshots,” Payne said. “It’s the kind of place that you walk around and think.”

North Brother Island is now a wildlife sanctuary used as a nesting ground for the Black-Crowned Night Heron. There are about 26 structures in various states of decay and for the majority of the year the island is completely overgrown by vegetation.

“It’s nice to know that in a city that’s always changing, North Brother Island is moving along at its own natural pace,” Payne said.

The book was published by the Fordham University Press. It also includes a history by Randall Mason, from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design, and an essay by author Robert Sullivan.

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