Once home of numerous quarantine hospitals—Typhoid Mary was its most famous patient—North Brother Island is now full of decaying buildings and migrating birds. But has the day come to finally give the public access to the 20-acre isle just off the Bronx? That's what City Council Member Mark Levine wants to do. "We need to find a way to get people onto the island in a safe manner," Levine tells us.
North Brother Island has attracted urban explorers for years (translation: it's illegal to visit there), and many photographers have reveled in the contrast between lush greenery and decaying, man-made structures. "To visit there was an experience unlike any other that I've had," Levine says, adding that it was "spellbinding."
As chair of the Council's Parks and Recreation Committee, Levine held a tour of the island yesterday for his fellow Council members in order "to build momentum, just to disseminate appreciation for this. I thought it was important to get policy makers onto the island," he said. "There's so much history" on the island, like "how we've dealt with epidemics," a topic that is very much on everyone's mind these days.
It was Levine's first time on the island, and he was in awe: "These ruins of the former hospital that have been overrun by nature. The experience of being completely isolated in this forest with these half decayed beautiful buildings as you faintly hear in the background the sounds of the city—honks from the Bronx, loudspeakers from Rikers..."
However, he did emphasize, "I don't think it's the next Governors Island." Any plans for the island would take account its importance as a bird sanctuary, and there are many "environmental needs." Plus, Levine said any plan would have to be "respectful of the historic nature" and work with a "huge number of safety concerns...it's not [currently] safe for the public."
There are actually 13 other "abandoned" islands under the jurisdiction of the Parks Department, from Cat Briar Island off Pelham Bay Park to Shooter's Island by Staten Island. Levine wants to learn more about them, pointing out that our city is an archipelago, "New Yorkers don't really think about how we're on an island... we don't appreciate it."
Levine wants to conduct a study about what North Brother Island could be, taking into account the ecology and history. One idea he has is that it could be a "no-touch" and "limited access" environmental education destination, which would also allow a number of visitors to appreciates its storied past.
"I hope you wouldn't have to be a City Council Member to see this," he adds.