Editor’s Note: Today’s guest post is a is a modified excerpt from Jessica Diller Kovler’s upcoming book, The Boys of the Bronx, to be published in 2015. Kovler is part of the History of Science program at Harvard University and currently teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, the City University of New York. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Forbes, and Discover magazines.
In my city—which, as you may have heard, doesn’t sleep—some nonetheless lethargic neighborhoods have had an awakening of sorts. Many New Yorkers are forgoing the bustling city centers for the far-flung shores of Manhattan as well as some of the city’s 41 adjacent islands, neighborhoods previously considered “The Devil’s Stepping Stones.” (Legend has it that indigenous New Yorkers chased the Devil across the waters of New York, and every time the Devil stepped down on the water, an island was born.) These areas were so removed from the grid that they were used to house the city’s derelict, destitute, profligate, and banished—drug addicts, criminals and those deemed too mentally or physically ill, or even too dangerous to live in “mainland” New York City.
Take Roosevelt Island, where Nellie Bly penned her work on the infamous Woman’s Lunatic Asylum; that island is now home to luxury rentals, with Cornell University planning an extension campus for 2017. Randall’s Island and Wards Island, home to cemeteries, asylums, and contagion hospitals, are now home to Little League games and the Electric Zoo festival.
Amidst this transformation, one island has been forgotten, though thousands of New Yorkers have (reluctantly) called it home. The last inhabitants of North Brother Island comprise a lost chapter in the story of urban institutionalization, a faded memory of a city grappling with a perceived epidemic of both juvenile delinquency and adolescent narcotics addiction. Now abandoned, its buildings fading behind overgrowth, the island nonetheless reveals why New York institutionalized drug-addicted teenagers, even as a nationwide movement towards deinstitutionalization was beginning to gain momentum.