North and South Brother Islands are two small islands located in New York City’s East River, directly between the Bronx and Riker’s Island. If that fact alone doesn’t give these islands some street cred, I don’t know what would. Oh wait, yes I do – North Brother Island was once home to Riverside Hospital, a floating sanctuary for those suffering from highly communicable diseases like smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever, and in a few cases, leprosy. That’s pretty bad-ass. It was even the last home of Typhoid Mary, who died of a stroke on the island in 1938. South Brother Island was once home to a former owner of the New York Yankees, but that’s about it. As brother islands go, South Brother Island is definitely a lesser Baldwin.
In 1614, both islands were claimed by merchant traders Dutch West India Company, which, contrary to popular belief, was not the name of the evil trading company in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ films. South Brother Island had a relatively uneventful existence in comparison to its twin, but after trading hands between local rich people a few times, it was purchased by the federal government and made into a wildlife sanctuary. Today it is operated by New York City’s Parks Department, and would probably be a fitting place for Ron Swanson to spend the remainder of his days.
North Brother Island, on the other hand, has enjoyed a much more colorful history. Uninhabited until 1885, Riverside Hospital moved to the island from nearby Roosevelt Island (then known as Blackwell’s Island). Following WWII, the island housed veterans and their families who were students at local colleges. As the housing shortage in the area subsided, the island laid uninhabited once again until the 1950s when a drug counseling center was opened upon its shores. The center claimed to be the first of its kind to offer full counseling and rehabilitation, but its practices lie in shadows and uncertainty to this day. Heroin addicts were confined to the island and locked in a room until they were clean, widely thought to be against their will. The rehab center closed in the 1960s in the face of staff corruption, patients’ regression, and Chief Bromden escaping the facility after throwing the shower room control panel through a window.
North Brother Island has stood uninhabited since 1963 and is very much off-limits to the public today. Various species of rare and exotic birds now call the wildly overgrown brush and foliage covering the still-standing remnants of Riverside Hospital home. In fact, North Brother Island is completely off-limits to anyone including Parks Department employees from March to October because that’s when the herons begin their nesting process. It’s fairly amazing that an overwhelmingly chaotic place like New York City has such a bastion of peaceful, undisturbed wildlife sitting smack in its center. There may be hope for us yet.