But some places require a bit more than just photos. A leper colony in New York? Quarantine zone? Crumbling walls? Ghosts? Don't you want to know more?
Having served as the editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, a compendium of the world's wonders, curiosities, and esoterica, before taking over what would become The Atlantic's Health channel, I know a thing or two about North Brother Island. Indeed, I've edited a short piece about it before. (Aside from the leper colony, North Brother Island is known as the site where the General Slocum steamship went up in flames with more than 1,000 people on board in 1905. For nearly 100 years, until the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001, it was the worst loss of life in New York's history.)
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Plopped down in the East River between Riker's Island and the Bronx, North Brother Island is a 13-acre piece of land that has never been completely developed. The only thing that was ever built there, unlike the larger Roosevelt Island nearby, was Riverside Hospital. Even though millions can see it from their windows or their commutes every day, few know about its history. And that's because few have ever set foot on it. Today, the island is a protected bird sanctuary, with a variety of species, including the two-foot-long Black-crowned Night Heron, calling it home. The birds roost on the open brick windows, in the frames of old beds, and on the large rafters running through what were once communal feeding spaces, green shoots breaking through the cement beneath them.
The birds are special. So special, in fact, that the only people allowed on the island are a handful of bird experts who visit to study them, the occasional film crew (North Brother Island was featured in a History Channel special, Life After People, that showed what would happen to buildings if abandoned for 45 years), and armed coastguards who circle the waters of the island to make sure looters and/or curious New Yorkers don't break through the quarantine zone.
But sometimes the coastguards are on break, or they turn a corner, leaving one side of the island unprotected, and people slip through the cracks. And they come back with stories. The hospital, it is said, still smells medicinal (this from a Radiolab producer who visited -- with permission from the parks department -- for a story on Typhoid Mary). The floors of the x-ray room are piled high with discarded film. Seats in an entertainment hall have all collapsed. The corridors, once home to hundreds of patients, echo when you walk through them. A door leading to the Nurse's Home is pocked with bullet holes. And otherwise normal items appear spooky and enchanted, like a 1954 Bronx phone book found open on a bench where its user must have last sat.
That would have been an outdated phone book, though, if it was used by one of Riverside's last residents. The hospital closed permanently in 1963 after serving for 11 years as home to an experimental drug program meant to treat juvenile offenders. The idea was to remove kids from the overcrowded jail system filled with more serious criminals and place them for six months in one of the observation wards at Riverside. After being ferried to the island, the kids, sentenced to the program by the court system or placed there by their parents, would be bathed, searched, and forced to quit their various addictions cold turkey. If problems arose, it is said that the kids were given their drug of choice in limited quantities and slowly weaned off. The kids -- 100 boys and 50 girls at a time -- were kept in an enormous pavilion originally constructed in 1943 to host tuberculosis patients. But it was never used for that purpose as the hospital closed for the first time that same year.