Islands of New York

What makes a city healthy?

Any city needs resources to attract commerce, labor, residents, entertainment, and tourists. New York City is a keen example.Islands of New York helped keep the city balanced and safer when science and social welfare were barely considered.

Few are aware that more than 5 boroughs helped make New York City greater. There are an additional 26 islands in New York’s domain. 200 years ago they were used to segregate those that had small pox, yellow fever, insanity, criminals and juvenile delinquents from the general population. They are gone. The islands remain with old structures wearing to dust.

Mayor DeBlasio announced that he had plans of disbanding Riker’s island (one of those 26) used as a city jail. Of course, some of these islands could have been used to house the homeless but it seems that Mayors and elected officials were either unaware or had forgotten that these islands were some of New York City’s greatest resources.

Many areas have outland islands that are often vacation areas. There are also outland islands of New York City but only few are vacation destinations. These islands play pivotal roles at defending New York City from foes and dangerous diseases or those posing danger to the general population of the city. Islands of New York were used as safety nets before the early 1900’s to maintain health, education and welfare for the diverse, growing city. Some still have remnants from eras of the past.

One can say that New York is the greatest city. Over 400 years, the city coped with many problems to promote commerce and comfort. Apart from the main bodies that are viewed as New York City, many smaller islands of New York bore significances that supported New York’s resiliency to survive even through the darkest times. How many of those islands are there? Many people guess. Some have been covered and some remain. 21st Century New York is far different than what lay beneath the sidewalks and waterways. New York City went through many invisible changes. These many islands of New York lay at the roots of New York’s successes and failures that helped New York City grow.

You might not be fully aware there are 26 islands of New York City and that some islands may not be natural islands at all. Understanding the times, many of these small off-shore islands were used for those who were a threat to the health and being of society. Some islands were lost by transformation into larger land masses. Others still exist as remnants of history long forgotten.

These islands of New York fulfill purposes that have helped New York battle invasions, care for the diseased, service the poor and the humbled masses yearning to breathe free.

Ellis Island, where many immigrants to the USA came, was the key port of entry from 1892 to 1954. Over twelve million immigrants entered the United States by being processed at Ellis Island. Samuel Ellis became the island’s private owner in the 1770s. It was once a hanging site for pirates and then Fort Gibson for defense from the British. The island fell into disrepair and recently restored. The many islands of New York played prominent roles in shaping the health and growth of New York City. Most remain as obscure relics of the best and worst of times.

Manhattan is an island. Is that a fact? Can Manhattan actually is not an island? Is it a peninsula off the Bronx? It is one of those many islands of New York that were shaped and redesigned. It was somehow attached to the Bronx with little land masses and narrow waterways. When we discuss the islands of New York City, some may be natural while others may be products of early renewal projects. Some historians think Manhattan may have been made into an island.

Turning Manhattan into an actual island was part of an idea to create a Harlem Ship Canal project in the early 1800’s.

Manhattan and Bronx were connected to a creek. To this day, the area is referred as Spuyten Duyvil or Spite of the Devil. The creek went through some small islands and an area in the southern Bronx called Marble Hill. The United States Post Office provides a Manhattan code for that area. The creek, named by the Dutch in the 1600’s, has been filled in. The Kingsbridge once went over it. There is no visible evidence of the creek.

The lands of the creek abutted Bronx and Manhattan. There were disputes where Bronx and Manhattan naturally began. The lands were removed and reshaped. In 1895, the Harlem River Ship Canal opened to advance maritime commerce by connecting the East and Harlem rivers to the Hudson river.

Manhattan and all the other boros were filled with creeks and streams. The Harlem River once fed through Manhattan. Several islands were found along the western borders, particularly West 155 Street. These islands were connected with landfill and became a park and a speedway.

Early Manhattan settlers found many islands at its southern tips. The lands were divided by a swamp, a wetland. The great wall (for which Wall Street is named) was a dividing line from dry and wet lands. North of Wall Street was a perfect area for tanning leather skins for wear and use. Settlers were also using water from the wetlands for food and sewage. Disease spread through the area. Most tanners moved upstate and the wetlands were drained in 1830 through Canal Street. This left patches of islands that were quickly dried and filled.

The reasons why many New Yorkers may not know about these islands may lie in the infamous stature of what may once have happened there or is currently happening. For example, Riker’s Island is a New York City prison. Hart’s Island is a 101-acre potter’s field, the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world, with well over a million souls buried beneath it, a third of them infants (usually orphans) and stillborn babies (many begotten by single women). Burials are conducted by Riker’s inmates so the island is very restricted.

North Brother Island consists of rotting, abandoned buildings. Situated in the East River, the 13-acre piece of land is closed to the public. It is located near Riker’s Island and it is shadowed in infamy. North Brother Island originally housed Riverside Hospital between the 1880s and 1930s. While in operation, the hospital served hundreds of patients who suffered from extremely communicable diseases, including smallpox, typhus, scarlet fever and even leprosy. The buildings were never destroyed. While vaccines are now available against these dread diseases, the buildings are slowly decaying and the structures are unsafe. What a spot for a dangerous Halloween!

If there is a North Brother Island, then a South Border Island must exist. It was the last privately owned island until the city of New York claimed it in 2007. Over the years, any beauty is masked by layers of bird poop. It was believed to have been purchased by one of the first owners of the Yankees in 1915. Could it ever be a space for a stadium?

Perhaps the most prestigious island on the East River is Roosevelt Island, filled with residential towers. It’s nestled between Manhattan and Queens. It was named after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Prior to that, it was referred by many names – Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island were popular. Throughout the 19th century, various hospitals, asylums, and correctional institutions were located on the island. Welfare Penitentiary (where entertainer Mae West once served time) was closed in 1935 after the completion of a new penitentiary on Riker’s Island. The prison was relocated from Manhattan to the island. It was originally located on West 10th Street near the Jefferson Court. It seemed that, like other islands, the current Roosevelt Island was for those that nobody wanted. A decaying small pox hospital was on the island till recently.

Rat Island is an interesting name for an island. Rat Island is a privately owned island in New York City. It is approximately 2.5 acres in size and located in City Island Harbor, where a seashore island is (named City Island). Originally Purchased from Native Americans in 1654 by the Pell family, the island’s name supposedly stems from the inmates then jailed on Hart Island. When inmates—who were nicknamed rats—escaped, they swam to Rat Island first before making a go at reaching City Island. In the 1800’s, the island was a site for a Yellow Fever hospital.

Bedloe’s Island was the original name of Liberty Island, where the statue now stands. Ironically, it was not named Liberty Island until 1956. It was named after Isaac Bedloe and the 10 acre site was originally used for fever victims. Centered at New York’s harbor, Bedloe’s Island figured prominently as a fort when the British seemed to prepare to bite into USA again in 1812. In 1808 Fort Wood was erected in preparation for the war with Britain. The island is the site where the Statue of Liberty was constructed, a major monument of New York.

Governor’s Island was recently annexed to New York City. The Governors Island changed hands from Denmark to England and was influential in helping United States thwart the British invasion of 1812, as did Bedloe’s Island (now Liberty Island). Governor’s Island is a national monument.

Two larger islands of New York, Ward’s Island and Randall’s Island, along the junction of the Harlem and East Rivers, are two islands in an area New Yorker’s refer as Hell-Gate. Randall’s Island is accessible by the RFK-Tri-boro Bridge. Hell’s Gate bridges connect the two islands.

In the 1800’s, the islands were places for orphans, debtors, and sick.

Randall’s island housed an orphanage, an almshouse, a potters field, an Idiot Asylum and a children’s hospital. But its most notorious tenant was the House of Refuge, a reform school completed in 1854 and run by the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents.

Ward’s Island was used for burial of hundreds of thousands of bodies relocated from the Madison Square Park and Bryant Park potters fields, beginning in the 1840s. Overall, 100,000 bodies were moved to approximately 75 acres on the southern tip of Wards Island. There was also an institution for the mentally sick (The New York City Asylum for the Insane) and for destitute immigrants. At one point, there was a rest home for Civil War veterans.

In the 1930’s, most of the buildings were demolished when the Park’s department took control. The large gothic, and almost silent bridge that connects the two islands is the Hell Gate Bridge. The bridge was built by the Pennsylvania Railroad between the years 1912 and 1917. That main function of the bridge is to provide main line access from New York City to New England. Geographically, Hell Gate was considered a narrow waterway between Queens and the East River to the Harlem River and got its name as a graveyard for old ships.

Widening the waterway required removal of small islands and land masses so the East River and Harlem River would seem like a united maritime resource.

There are many islands of New York but two islands of New York deserve special mention – Staten Island and Coney Island.

As early as 1524, Giovanni da Verrazano passes through the Narrows between the lands where a bridge in his honor would be built over 400 years later, connecting Bay Ridge Brooklyn and Staten Island. The name origin of Staten Island is attributed to Henry Hudson’s Dutch identifier on his maps when he was exploring the nearby water ways around 1609. Staten Island, along with the Bronx and Manhattan, was considered a borough of the British New York. At the time, Brooklyn and Queens were part of Long Island. Staten Island became the County of Richmond when England won the area from Denmark. In 1729, a county seat was established at the village of Richmond Town, located at the headwaters of the Fresh Kills near the center of the island.

John Jacob Astor was one of Staten Island’s first and more prominent residents. Much of Astor’s wealth came from seizing the maritime opportunities that New York provided. Born in Waldorf, Germany, Astor came to New York when he was 20 years old. At first, he lived in Staten Island, where, at the age of 21, he started a ferry service. Actually, Astor would transport people from Manhattan to Staten Island in a small row boat. Soon he had a larger boat, and eventually a small fleet of ferry boats. By the age of 30, he had a fleet of ships and was in the fur trading business. Astor and descendants was one of the most powerful and rich families of New York City.

As an island, Staten Island was a mix of farms and of hospitals for those who were unwanted or very sick. The Staten Island Farm Colony was initially a reformatory for unwanted individuals and its history is marred by some heinous crimes as recent as the 1980’s. The Farm Colony consisted of 37 buildings, planned and developed between 1905 and 1938, and a network of connecting tunnels. One of the buildings was Seaview Hospital. It was used for children with tuberculosis, and later a Women’s Ward was added. The Willowbrook State School and Hospital was a neglectful institution for mentally ill patients. Ironically, this complex was considered state-of-the-art when built. Some buildings have been renovated and are still in use today.

The Mission of the Immaculate Virgin, since 1883, has been one of the city’s largest for orphans and homeless children. In the beginnings it and Staten Island’s St. Michaels were called Orphan Asylum. There were may orphanages and orphan asylums in the 19th century run under the benevolence of the Roman Catholic Church.

Infectious diseases among immigrants and residents required special quarantines and Staten Island constructed two off-shore islands to handle these unfortunate cases.

There are two islands that are visible off Staten Island as the Narrows open past the Verrazano Bridge. They are Hoffman and Swinburne Islands. They are not entirely natural formations, but mainly artificial constructions using sand from Staten Island. They were constructed around 1870.

Small Pox, Yellow Fever, and a host of other diseases we don’t worry about anymore were “treated” on those islands. Swinburne had rows of hospital wards and a crematory with a mortuary for these contagious cases. Hoffman was for more moderate cases.
Hoffman was named for an 1860s NYC mayor, while Swinburne, originally named Dix Island, was renamed for hero Civil War surgeon Dr. John Swinburne. The islands were used to care for and quarantine immigrants who, after being pronounced to be without major disease, were sent on to Castle Garden and (later) Ellis Island. They were used till the 1920’s. When it came to benevolence and charity in the gas-lit eras of New York, Staten Island was often called and used to carry the burden as one of the islands of New York.

When people think of Coney Island, bathing and amusements come to mind. Today, it’s part of Brighton Beach but, over 100 years ago, it was separated from the beach by a waterway called the Coney Island Creek (originally called Gravesend Creek). According to history, Coney Island, Manhattan Beach, Sea Gate and Brighton Beach were all carved out of Gravesend. Many entrepreneurs believed that connecting the Coney Islands to the mainland provided major opportunities and profits. For the most part, they were right.

Coney Island consisted of two of the barrier islands of Long Island adjacent to Brooklyn. It is about 4 miles (6.4 km) long and 0.5 miles (0.80 km) wide. Several plans in 1900 included widening the creek as a ship canal or filling it up. Filling the creek with sand and other debris, Coney Island appears connected to the mainland, appearing more like a peninsula than an island. A small part of the creek remains and is called Coney Island Creek Park. Over the years, Coney Island and Brighton Beach seem like one piece of land but actually they were 3 separate pieces.

The area in the 19th century was sort of a mixed bag. At one end there were houses of ill-repute and family resorts at the other. As elevated railroads and subways developed, Coney Island became a major tourist destination. Most of the original rides and amusement areas, like most of the city, were made of wood and used gas lighting, were vulnerable to easily catch fire. The bulk of the rides were carousels, appealing to the more sophisticated 19th century lifestyles. Roller coasters came at around the turn of the 19th to 20th centuries.

The Coney Island area has had its ups and downs over the past 50 years. Some blame is attributed to low-income housing but some might say that family entertainment at Disney Parks and easier air access are part of the blame. Anyway, the Coney Island area is showing signs of return as a great beach, amusement park, and dining area.

New York of the 21st Century is very different from the lands the Dutch first saw in the early 1600’s. There were more creeks, streams, swamps, islands, and rocky ridges than are around today.

As any aspiring, growing area, New York City had many problems to overcome in those centuries before electricity and electronics. The islands of New York played significant roles at separating problems and hardened criminals from the residents.

Coping with the unhealthy has been evident even in the earliest societies. Over 2500 years ago, people with Leprosy were sent off to islands and remote colonies out of cities. For a long time leprosy was thought to be a hereditary disease, a curse, or a punishment from God. Crete and Hawaii were two popular places where lepers were sent up to 100 years ago.

Many infectious and deadly diseases that were plague-like in those early centuries now have pills and vaccines that make them insignificant in today’s society. In the early centuries, the diseased were cast to islands for observation and treatment (and often there was no treatment). These institutions were often constructed and designed with benevolent intentions but, through years of rising and falling economic times and focus on wars, lack of funds for infrastructural changes easily bred malevolence. You may find the decayed remains of those institutions on the various islands of New York. The islands of New York were for those that were unfit for society.

For the most part, most of New York Manhattan residents lived south of 14th Street in the late 19th-century. Orphanages, homes for wayward women, and insane asylums were also found far from crowded areas. The Bloomingdale Insane Asylum (part of the original Bloomingdale Farm) stood where the campus of Columbia University occupies.

An important benefit of many of the islands of New York was the construction of forts for defense against the British and other invaders.

Some islands of New York are part of the Federal and city park departments for all types of recreation. Many are inaccessible and dangerous, wired from public intrusion.

New York City made use of these island of New York for various intents that seemed right for the times, especially in those days before electricity. These islands posed mighty outposts for defense, health, education, and welfare. While many lay as forbidden historic relics, they reflect New York’s major resources.

These islands of New York have dotted pasts but, for the most part, use and manipulation of those islands have contributed, through the centuries, to, arguably, help make New York City the greatest city of the world.

Considering the value placed on land and the numbers of homeless, these abandoned islands of New York are probable areas that could offer affordable housing for those that need it. The residents could travel by ferries. Considering North Barrier, Swinburne, and Hoffman islands, these are promising spaces, The islands of New York are valued resources. They should not remain abandoned and useless.

The early planners of NYC used these islands of New York as forms of protection. New York City is rich with abandoned areas that can be restored. Most have been razed for constructing luxury housing. These more remote islands of New York offer potential for those more needy.