An abandoned, forbidden island. What could possibly be more alluring? And more difficult to accurately depict in a historical novel?
Those were my conflicting thoughts as I toyed with the idea of setting an epic tale on New York City’s North Brother Island, home to a quarantine hospital now overrun by voracious vines and unyielding trees.
After Riverside Hospital was shuttered in 1963, the island began its return to a natural state, its daily progress invisible to the seven million New Yorkers surrounding it. Yet in the blink of an eye—from the perspective of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet—a forest appeared and swallowed the complex, a foreshadowing of a post-apocalyptic world.
During the island’s decades of disuse before the turn of the twenty-first century, those vandals and urban explorers who could navigate the competing currents that race through the bend in the tidal strait where North Brother sits enjoyed unhindered entry to the neglected facility. Then, in 2001, the New York City Department of Recreation acquired the island and designated it a “Forever Wild” resource with no public access. Throughout the two decades that followed—until the coronavirus pandemic stymied all requests—a handful of photographers received permission to visit the island, with the occasional urban explorer successfully sneaking ashore.
For the rest of us, their photographs and documentaries (as well as a few recent drone videos) provide our only window to one of the most eerie, intriguing places in the United States.
When I first began researching North Brother in early 2014, I found several collections of images on-line yet none of the structures depicted were labeled. How could I reference these buildings in a novel if I didn’t know their use? I couldn’t. Just as I’d begun to come to grips with the fact that my story idea couldn’t be executed, I came across an announcement that Christopher Payne would be releasing his photography collection in a coffee table book titled, “North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City” in less than a month. Giddily, I attended his book signing and lecture at The General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen in Midtown Manhattan.
Positioned near the back of the standing-room only crowd at Payne’s launch, I was enthralled both by his presentation and the audience’s rapt attention. I anticipated then that a novel set in such an elusive, haunting place would captivate others the way the idea tightly gripped me. And with the aid of the labeled map and carefully captioned photos within Payne’s book, I could catalog all the images available on-line, which would make such an endeavor possible.
Over the month that followed, I meticulously examined over 450 photographs and cross-referenced them with Payne’s labeled images. From that effort, I gain a surreal visual of a microenvironment that experienced seismic changes over the course of a mere century.
With my setting firmly established, I turned to plotting the novel. And for that the photographs proved just as crucial.
In my next post, I’ll touch on how details within the haunting images available for all of us to enjoy on-line influenced my creative process.
In the meantime, I encourage you to check out the below NBI photography collections, and to let your imagination wander…
• Christopher Payne: http://www.chrispaynephoto.com/north-brother-island
• Ian Ferrence: https://ianference.smugmug.com/Architecture/North-Brother-Island/
• Tod Seelie: https://gothamist.com/news/photos/a-trip-to-the-abandoned-north-brother-island
• Deborah O’Grady: https://www.deborahogrady.com/portfolio-items/north-brother-island/
The header image, downloaded from Canva, is representative of the actual Riverside Hospital photographs, which are copyrighted.