It's one of New York 's best kept secrets. Lying in plain sight of the city is an island which no one has inhabited for more than 50 years. Photographer Christopher Payne shares the secrets of North Brother Island.
Watch the video and answer the questions below. The activity is suitable for Intermediate 2 and Advanced students.
1 Why is 1963 a relevant year?
2 Why did Norther Brother island become popular in the late 19th century?
3 What is Mr Softee?
4 How long was the tuberculosis pavilion used for its intended function?
5 What was it used for after 1943?
6 What's the title of the book by Allan Weisman?
North Brother Island is an uninhabited island of ruins in East River New York city. It’s the most unexpected of places in a city like New York. It is a secret hiding in plain sight. (1) It is been abandoned for the last 50 years or so, since 1963, but from the 1880’s all the way up to the 1960’s it was home to thousands of people.
In the late 19th century there was a constant scare of contagious diseases with the huge burden in population in New York city and diseases were always making headlines, and so that’s when (2) North Brother island came in a prominence as a quarantine hospital.
You step onto it and all of a sudden you’re in the middle of the city and yet you’re completely alone. It’s an experience that I’ve never had anywhere else. It’s like you’re walking back into time, into another world and yet you still hear the sounds of the city. One time I even heard the Mr Softee truck, which is (3) an ice-cream truck and I heard that and then it was bizarre because on the one hand that’s part of the living, that’s part of the present, the world that we’re living in is New York city, vibrant and alive. And yet I was in one of these abandoned buildings which hasn’t been used in, in decades and so being on the island is full of contrast.
The most interesting building on North Brother island by far is the tuberculosis pavilion. (4) It was never used for its intended function. By the time it was completed in 1943 the threat of tuberculosis had passed and there really wasn’t the need to quarantine people on islands like North Brother anymore, and so (5) it was used mostly for housing, for the returning veterans after World War II and later on for the juvenile delinquents.
I’d like to think that my photographs tell more than just what’s there now. They are looped back to the past, and certainly when they’re paired with a historical photograph, you can get a sense of what happened before but also how quickly things disintegrate.
And then I read this wonderful book called (6) The World Without Us by Allan Weisman and it discusses what will happen to the world if people just left and nature took over. And it made me realize that the work I was doing was just not a look into the past but it was a look into the future, and that these photographs show what will happen to New York City and the world around us if people just suddenly left. And how quickly nature would just reclaim what it’s hers. It alludes to the conundrum we face of living in a natural world which we try to alter but always reasserts itself in the end.