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Photographer Captures Ruins of East River's Abandoned North Brother Island

By Amy Zimmer | September 13, 2012 7:02am

MANHATTAN — Few people have set foot on North Brother Island, an overgrown landmass that stands close to Riker's Island in the East River.

But the bird sanctuary recently hosted photographer Christopher Payne, one of a handful who have had access to the island and who has been documenting it for a book expected to be published in 2014.

"The island's unique ruinous landscape immediately appealed to me," said Payne, who was working at the time on a project about abandoned state mental institutions.

The obscure island has its own history of housing institutions. It was home to a quarantine hospital in the 1880s and was where the infamous “Typhoid Mary” spent 30 years in confinement. 

A tuberculosis hospital being built there was later turned into housing for World War II veterans attending school on the GI Bill. In the 1950s, one of the first juvenile drug rehab centers was established on the island until it was abandoned nearly 12 years later.

Payne, who will share his photographs of North Brother Island at a talk Thursday sponsored by Open House New York and held at the South Street Seaport Museum, first learned of the forgotten place in 2004 when commissioned to document industrial sites along the East River by the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance advocacy group.

He made a few trips there with workers from the city's Parks Department and realized he wanted to return more often. So he submitted a proposal in 2008 offering to supply his own boat in exchange for transporting Parks employees to the island.

"Since then I've probably made over fifteen trips, but these are limited to the nesting off-season, roughly September to March," he said.

He has been using a survey of the island produced in 2005 by historic preservation students at the University of Pennsylvania, and he is collaborating on the book with that department's chair, Randy Mason.

The project has grown beyond the photographs and is still expanding.

"Incredibly, a friend just told me she lived on North Brother as a child, after WWII when it served as a home for returning GIs and their families," he said.

He plans to interview her 93-year-old father and hopes to connect with more former residents.

It hasn't been easy boating to the island with his load of camera equipment. The dense vegetation and poison ivy has also made it difficult, Payne said.

"What amazes me most is how the landscape completely changes from season to season, and how the buildings are visible in the winter but then swallowed up in the summer," he said.

"It's always a magical place," he added, "and when I'm walking under the canopy of trees amidst the ruins, I can't believe I'm still in New York City."

Christopher Payne will talk about North Brother Island on Thursday, Sept. 13 at the South Street Seaport Museum as part of Open House New York, 6 to 8:30 p.m. (Cost: $15)