North and South Brother Islands, New York City

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Coordinates: 40°47′54″N 73°53′54″W / 40.798266°N 73.898424°W / 40.798266; -73.898424

The remains of Riverside Hospital on North Brother Island, 2006.

North and South Brother Islands are a pair of small islands located in New York City's East River between the Bronx and Rikers Island. North Brother Island was once the site of a hospital, but is now uninhabited and designated as a bird sanctuary. Until 1964, South Brother Island was part of Queens County (within Long Island City, beginning in 1870[1]), but it is now part of Bronx County.[2] It had long been privately owned, but it was purchased by the city in 2007.

According to the New York City Parks Department, which oversees the islands, North Brother Island has about 20 acres (8.1 ha) of land,[3] and South Brother Island about 6 acres (2.4 ha).[4]


Bodies from the General Slocum wash ashore on North Brother Island, 1904.

Both North Brother Island and South Brother Island were claimed by the Dutch West India Company in 1614 and both were originally named "De Gesellen", translated as "the companions" in English.[5]

North Brother Island[edit]

The northern of the islands was uninhabited until 1885, when Riverside Hospital moved there from Blackwell's Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Riverside Hospital was founded in the 1850s as the Smallpox Hospital to treat and isolate victims of that disease. Its mission eventually expanded to other quarantinable diseases, with the most recent being the Tuberculosis Pavilion, which was built in 1943, and was almost immediately obsolete.[6]

The island was the site of the wreck of the General Slocum, a steamship which burned on June 15, 1904. Over 1,000 people died either from the fire on board the ship or from drowning before the ship was beached on the island's shores.[7]

Mary Mallon, also known as Typhoid Mary, was confined to the island for over two decades until she died there in 1938.[8][5] The hospital closed shortly thereafter.

Following World War II, the island housed war veterans who were students at local colleges, along with their families. After the nationwide housing shortage abated, the island was once again abandoned until the 1950s, when a center opened to treat adolescent drug addicts. The facility claimed to be the first to offer treatment, rehabilitation, and education facilities to young drug offenders. Heroin addicts were confined to this island and locked in a room until they were clean. Many of them believed they were being held against their will. By the early 1960s widespread staff corruption and patient recidivism forced the facility to close.[citation needed] The facility is said to have been the inspiration for the Broadway play Does a Tiger Wear a Necktie?, which helped to launch the career of Al Pacino.[6]

Over the years, various New York City mayors have floated ideas about what to do with the island. John Lindsay, for instance, proposed to sell it, and Ed Koch thought that it could be converted into housing for the homeless. The city also considered using it as an extension of the prison at Rikers Island.[6]

Now a bird sanctuary for herons and other wading shorebirds,[6] the island is currently abandoned and off-limits to the public. Most of the original hospitals' buildings still stand, but are heavily deteriorated and in danger of collapse, and a dense forest conceals the ruined hospital buildings. In October 2014, New York City Council member Mark Levine, Chair of the City Council's Parks Committee, led a delegation to visit the island,[9] and declared his desire afterwards to open the island for limited "light-touch, environmentally sensitive" public access.[10] In October 2016, New York magazine reported that the Council had commissioned a study from the University of Pennsylvania's School of Design on how the island could be converted into a park with controlled access by the public. The study is due in November, and will be followed by a public hearing.[6]

South Brother Island[edit]

Jacob Ruppert, a brewery magnate and early owner of the New York Yankees, had a summer house on the island that burned down in 1909.[5] No one has lived on the island since then, and there are no structures extant. Ruppert owned the island until the late 1930s, and in 1944 it was purchased by John Gerosa, president of the Metropolitan Roofing Supply Company, who had wanted to construct a never-built summer retreat for his workers on the island.

A Snowy egret displaying plumage. This species is one of the inhabitants of the South island.

In 1975, the City sold South Brother Island to Hampton Scows Inc., a Long Island investment company, for $10.[5][11] Hampton Scows paid property taxes every year but did not develop the island.

In November 2007, the island was purchased in a complicated transaction in which $2 million of Federal grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program was allocated to the Wildlife Conservation Society and the Point Community Development Corporation. The Trust for Public Land then acquired the island on behalf of those organizations, and then donated it to the city's Parks Department for use as a wildlife sanctuary.[4][5]It will be managed by the city's Parks Department and the Bronx Zoo.[11][12] South Brother Island was the 13th island to come under the Parks Department's jurisdiction.[4]


From the 1980s through the early 2000s, North Brother Island supported one of the area's largest nesting colonies of black-crowned night heron. However as of 2008 this species has abandoned the island for unknown reasons.[13] Barn swallows use the abandoned structures for nesting, and can be seen flying over the island.

On South Brother Island, dense brush supports a major nesting colony of several species of birds, notably black-crowned night heron, great egret, snowy egret, and double-crested cormorant. New York City Audubon has monitored nesting colonies on the island for over twenty years.[14][15]

In popular culture[edit]

North Brother Island was featured in episode 8 ("Armed and Defenseless") of Life After People on the History Channel. It was used as an example of what would happen to structures after 45 years without humans.[16] It was also featured in the Broad City episode "Working Girls" and the Unforgettable episode "The Island".

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Beers, F.W. (1873). Long Island City. Long Island. (Map). Beers, Comstock & Cline. Retrieved October 1, 2016. 
  2. ^ New York. Laws of New York; 1964, 187th Session, Chapter 578, page 1606.
  3. ^ Staff (November 21, 2001) "Daily Plant: Over 2001 Acres Gained by October 2001" New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
  4. ^ a b c Staff (November 29, 2007) "The Daily Plant: South Brother Island Goes To The Birds" New York City Department of Parks and Recreation
  5. ^ a b c d e Williams, Timothy (November 20, 2007). "City Claims Final Private Island in East River". The New York Times. Retrieved May 26, 2008. 
  6. ^ a b c d e Kirby, Jen (October 27, 2016) "NYC’s North Brother Island, Abandoned for 50 Years, Might Finally Be Opened to (Legal) Visitors" New York
  7. ^ Staff (June 16, 1904). "The General Slocum An Unlucky Craft. Has Had Collisions And Accidents By The Score. Has Run Ashore Many Times. She Was a Crack Harbor Boat Thirteen Years Ago. Capt. Van Schaick's Good Record". The New York Times. Retrieved February 28, 2010. 
  8. ^ Staff (November 12, 1938). "'Typhoid Mary' Dies of A Stroke at 68. Carrier of Disease, Blamed for 51 Cases and 3 Deaths, but She Was Held Immune". The New York Times. Retrieved February 28, 2010. 
  9. ^ Foderaro, Lisa (October 15, 2014). "On an Island Under Vines, New York City Officials See a Future Park". The New York Times. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  10. ^ Chung, Jen (October 16, 2014). "A Rare, Legal Visit To 'Spellbinding' North Brother Island". Gothamist. Retrieved November 2, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b Freedlander, David (November 20, 2007). "New York's South Brother Island to be a sanctuary". New York Newsday. Retrieved May 26, 2008. 
  12. ^ Block, Dorian (November 27, 2007). "City buys South Brother Island on East River for bird refuge". Daily News. New York. 
  13. ^ Craig, E. "Audubon's Harbor Herons Project: 2009 Interim Nesting Survey Report" (PDF). New York City Audubon. 
  14. ^ Craig, E. "2012 Interim Nesting Report" (PDF). NYC Audubon. Retrieved June 25, 2013. 
  15. ^ Berger, Joseph (December 4, 2003). "So, You Were Expecting a Pigeon?; In City Bustle, Herons, Egrets and Ibises Find a Sanctuary". The New York Times. Retrieved August 21, 2007. 
  16. ^ "Armed and Defenseless". History Channel. Archived from the original on October 28, 2009. Retrieved February 28, 2010. 

Further reading

External links[edit]