Documenting the “last unknown place in New York City.”
By Christopher Payne | From 2008 to 2013, the photographer Christopher Payne GAr’96 [“Architecture of Madness,” Mar|Apr 2010] made numerous visits to a small island in the East River—just a 10-minute boat-ride from New York City, but “another world,” he writes—to take the photographs for his new book, North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City (Fordham University Press, 2014).
Having served as an isolation hospital from the 1880s to the 1940s, housing for returning GIs after World War II, and a drug-treatment center in the 1950s, the island has been abandoned since the early 1960s. Today it is a refuge for herons, which limited Payne’s visits to from September to March, when they weren’t nesting.
He photographed the landscape during those months—the building remains nearly totally obscured by vegetation at first, then stark against the snow and bare branches of winter—as well as details like rusting lampposts and fire hydrants, messages scratched onto walls and old library books strewn across a floor. As he came to appreciate the island’s current function as a natural sanctuary, he added images of the NYC Parks Natural Resources Group employees who are working to maintain the island’s ecosystem.
“What kept me coming back, long after I had taken more than enough pictures and explored the buildings and grounds dozens of times?” he asks in the book’s Afterword, contemplating the island’s enduring attraction. “I recalled how I felt that first day in the woods, and realized the answer was obvious, hiding in plain sight like the island itself. NBI’s appeal lies in the unique experience it offers. Though its appearance and use have changed over the years, its essential quality—as a place of refuge, remains intact. More than anything else, here in a city of millions there is one small corner where there is no one. And if you can get there, the rarest of solitudes awaits you.”