The Islands of New York City: How a Real Estate Boom is Turning Former Homes of Crime and Contagion Into Boho-Chic Living—Except for One Tiny Island Off the Bronx (Guest Post)

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.

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Recent News Roundup: The Sobriety Coach Edition

Twelve-step sponsorship is so twentieth century—or so The New York Times would have us believe. In an article published last month in the newspaper’s Fashion and Style section, author Marisa Fox made the case that “recovery coaches,” “once consigned to Hollywood entourages to keep celebrities on the straight and narrow,” are currently trending among upper-class women “from the Upper East Side to the beachfront homes of Boca Raton.”

Last weekend, NPR’s All Things Considered followed the trend, offering a more inclusive description of recovery coaches’ clientele (the stock image that accompanied the report was still a view from the beach).

Diane Diederich/iStockphoto featured on

The historical angle adopted by both news outlets was obvious. The old-fashioned practice of sponsorship—defined by Alcoholics Anonymous as the process by which a person “who has made some progress in the recovery program shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety”— presents shortcomings in today’s treatment marketplace. The women featured in the Times have the ability to buy their way out of the social awkwardness and fear of exposure that twelve-step meeting attendance invites. The NPR piece notes that people in early recovery don’t always gravitate toward the most adept supporters— coaches, who are trained to provide practical as well as spiritual guidance, can help solve this long-standing problem.

Clipping from Hazelden's MORE program pamphlet. The program offers coaching for clients in early recovery.
Clipping from Hazelden’s MORE program pamphlet. The program offers coaching for clients in early recovery.

As historian and clinician Bill White explained, coaches are not sponsors (they don’t do voluntary twelve-step work on “paid time”) and they’re not quite counselors (they don’t diagnose or probe underlying psychological issues). They occupy a new niche in the service economy that employs more than 75 percent of today’s American workers. They are “the new Pilates instructors,” one coach told the Times. They are compensated to be both “cheerleaders” and “beacons of hope,” another told NPR.

Like NPR reporter Martha Bebinger, I think coaches can produce tremendous benefits, both for people in recovery and for the treatment system as a whole. But the proper role of recovery coaches in today’s health service sector also deserves a systemic critique—and not the trolling, “New York Times Style Suction” sort.

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Presenting Terada Shin: The Life History of a Female Drug User in Prewar Japan

Editor’s Note: Today, Points features a guest post by Miriam Kingsberg, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Moral Nation: Modern Japan and Narcotics in Global History. (University of California Press, 2013). You can read the Points interview about the book here).

For historians of drugs, user perspectives are often frustratingly difficult to capture. Narcotics consumers generally leave behind few records in their own voice, forcing scholars to rely on the (frequently biased) perceptions of those who come into contact with them: law enforcement, doctors, social scientists, policymakers, etc. In the course of my research on narcotics in Japan and its empire from the 1850s through the 1950s, each of these groups provided critical information. My search for user-authored narratives, however, proved fruitless until virtually the last moment. In 2011, as I was preparing the penultimate draft of my book manuscript, I learned that a collection of documents, formerly inaccessible to scholars due to their poor condition, had been digitized and made available by the National Diet Library in Tokyo. To my delight, I found materials on the Drug Addiction Relief Association [Mayaku Kyūgokai], founded in 1933 as Japan’s first domestic facility for treating narcotics dependence. These sources not only enhanced my understanding of the history of addiction medicine, but also included about twenty life stories by patients, as recorded by doctors at the clinic in the mid-1930s.

Terada Shin (right) with Y. Masa (a fellow patient at the Narcotic Addiction Relief Association)

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Texas Veterans for Medical Marijuana: Backstory on a “War Without End”

Last week, I attended a panel discussion co-hosted by Texas Monthly and the Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. The subject for debate was a recent article by Bill Martin, the director of the Institute’s Drug Policy Program. “War Without End,” published in the June edition of Texas Monthly, describes how Texas veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are successfully self-medicating for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with marijuana. (Trigger warning: their stories are not easy reading). The decision to opt for cannabis over the antidepressants, sleeping pills, or psychotropic medications commonly prescribed by Veterans Administration (VA) doctors makes these veterans criminals in the state of Texas. Although Governor Rick Perry recently said he plans to “implement policies that start us toward decriminalization,” the Texas Legislature hasn’t budged in recent years. Unlike Colorado or Washington, Texas does not have a ballot initiative or referendum process, so the Legislature is the state’s main route to reform. Majority support from the public and the best efforts of groups like the Marijuana Policy Project and local chapters of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) have, so far, come to naught.

Enter the veterans. Reformers believe Texas legislators will listen to war heroes, and state Senator Joan Huffman (R-Houston), a panelist at the Baker Institute event, seems to agree. Huffman told audience members that, in her opinion, a focused campaign for medical marijuana legislation for veterans diagnosed with PTSD would stand a better chance of success than broader initiatives aimed at population-wide medicalization, decriminalization, or legalization.

Photo illustration by Darren Braun for Texas Monthly
Photo illustration by Darren Braun for Texas Monthly


“When a guy has done four tours in Iraq, like some of our people, and been wounded in action, it’s hard to look him in the eye and call him a slacker pothead,” one veteran and activist told Texas Monthly. This new depiction of the traumatized veteran as uniquely deserving of marijuana does more than challenge the stoner stereotype. It recalls many of the psychological, symbolic, and treatment policy developments associated with the Iraq War’s most frequently cited historical analogue: the war in Vietnam.

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Medicine or Vacation? Selling addiction treatment, circa last century

If, like me, you’ve spent the past several years studying the history of addiction treatment, then you might know why I can’t look at beachy treatment ads—they tend to resemble the image below— without thinking about the work of William L. White, the prolific addiction professional and historian.

Addiction Ends in Malibu
Addiction Ends in Malibu?

White’s book, Slaying the Dragon, is a canonical text on the history of addiction treatment in the United States. While Slaying was written to give addiction professionals a sense of their own history, the book is also an essential starting point for any scholar who first approaches the subject. Early on, White describes the “rise and fall of inebriate homes and asylums.” At the turn of the twentieth century, White writes, “a national network of addiction treatment programs was born, was professionalized, and then disappeared—all within the span of a few decades.” In his analysis of the dissolution of the early addiction treatment industry, White finds parallels with the precarious position of treatment providers today: a motley of institutional models for addiction treatment, conflicting professional interpretations regarding the nature of addiction, and unreliable political support.

One parallel is evident in contemporary treatment ads. While a combination of forces led to the decline of treatment centers a little less than a century ago, one of the most salient factors, it seems to me, was the economics of Gilded Age addiction treatment. Despite significant changes in theories of addiction, drug policy, and treatment trends over the course of the last century, the pitch for ritzy, private treatment centers has remained remarkably faithful to its early rhetoric.

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The Points Interview — Todd Meyers

Editor’s note: Points welcomes Todd Meyers, a medical anthropologist at Wayne State University, to discuss his new book, The Clinic and Elsewhere: Addiction, Adolescents, and the Afterlife of Therapy (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013).

meyers front cover1.  Describe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

The book tells the story of a small group of teenagers (some quite young) who abuse opiates (heroin, prescription painkillers) as well as other drugs, and what drug dependency treatment was like for them. I met most of them during their time at a residential drug treatment center in Baltimore – a treatment center that, oddly enough, was once a monastery. I was fool enough to attempt following them around for long periods of time to gain an appreciation of how addiction and treatment ­took shape in their lives – how these two “modes” (drug dependency and its treatment) blur in unexpected ways. And that’s really one of the key arguments of the book – that clinical activities and thought reach into this thing we call “the social” and vice versa, thus the title of the book, The Clinic and Elsewhere. All of the kids I followed were treated with a relatively new pharmaceutical therapy (buprenorphine) for withdrawal and replacement therapy, and I followed that treatment process through their time in residential care and back into their homes or other institutional environments. The book is simultaneously about the new pharmaceutical therapy itself – tracing its development and approval as a new treatment modality. The book is a bit theoretical (what are the experiential dimensions of therapeutics? of patienthood? of success and failure of medical intervention? of concern? etc.) and a bit straight storytelling (that is to say, it’s ethnographic, through I’m becoming less and less satisfied with the salience of ethnography as both the technology and product of fieldwork). I attempted, at times clumsily, to make sense of treatment and addiction alongside these kids and their families as they themselves struggled with its meaning.

That’s probably what I’d say.  But in full disclosure, the last time I had a conversation with a bartender it began with hearing how he makes his own bitters from plants in his hydroponic garden and ended with him describing his thesis project (something about lactose fermentation and legal aspects of local food production), so I don’t think the book would be much of a stretch.  In fact, that’s part of my effort – to present work in conceptual terms that is not completely foreign to a broad readership (though not to water things down by any means, keeping with the bartender analogy) – and at the same time I have tried to write against the anticipated trope of marginality. That last part is probably the hardest to convey convincingly. The book is not a series of reworked scenes from The Wire but instead attempts to demonstrate the slow, at times banal, at other times brutal ways in which both addiction and treatment take hold within the domain of individual experience (contrasting a perspective where treatment neutralizes addiction uniformly, or that the experience of treatment is largely unvaried).    Read More »

The Points Interview — Eoin Cannon

Note: Points’ managing editor, Eoin Cannon, favors us, today, with an interview on his just-out, new book, The Saloon and the Mission: Addiction, Conversion, and the Politics of Redemption in American Culture  (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). BTW, Big Congratulations, Eoin!

Cannon-coverDescribe your book in terms your bartender could understand.

Sorry, barkeep, but this book is about people who ceased to need your services and then made a realllly big deal about it.  It’s about how and why people have told stories of recovery from alcoholism publicly since the late 19th century.

I focus especially on the legacies of the “drunkard’s conversion” testimonies given in urban evangelical missions and circulated widely in print from the 1880s to the 1910s. Despite their roots in old-time religion, these stories’ urban class dynamics made them compelling to those who saw the knot of poverty, ethnic difference, and vice as a modern social crisis. In personal voices and realistic slum settings, the drunkards’ conversion stories defied the irreversible fates associated with these categories. The practical understanding of salvation they offered also made such tales susceptible to a wide range of interpretations. So instead of seeing conversion stories as individualistically oriented distractions from structural injustices — as skeptical readers today might — many reformers, artists, and intellectuals in this period retold them as stories that modeled a wider social healing by the lights of a variety of social theories, from radical to reactionary. In the context of this contested discourse around the meaning of the drinker’s redemption, literary writers through the modern period told stories of alcoholism with high stakes. The drinker’s descent was a character-based crisis, but one that plumbed modern society’s perceived maladjustment and, possibly, harbored clues to its regeneration.

This programmatic approach to redemption shaped the storytelling conventions available to the budding recovery movement in the 1930s and beyond. A.A.’s pioneers subsumed the contested aspects of the form into a recognizably Depression-era revision of the self, one that understood the limitations of individualism in social as well as in spiritual terms. In mutual-aid circles, these stories could remain highly pragmatic, devoted to A.A.’s “primary purpose.” But public recovery stories since the rise of A.A. have taken the social ethic of mutual aid beyond twelve-step culture and out into the wider society. These stories often depict recovery as the solution to a social problem or even as the model of an ideal society. As such, they have tracked the progress of liberalism since the New Deal era and, I argue, helped to shape its redemptive ethos in the realm of culture. Cannon

So while we may not openly contest the meaning of the modern recovery story, preferring to accept that it simply describes how a sick person got well, the story form is so constructed as to embody foundational claims about the self and its relation to others. If we as a society don’t agree on those claims, neither will we agree on the meaning of recovery — arguably a dissensus increasingly in evidence since the 1960s.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Most interesting might be the things they are most likely to question. First, I started my pre-history of recovery narrative in the postbellum rescue missions, rather than in the Washingtonian Movement of the 1840s. I placed a lot of weight on the secular implications of prevailing interpretations of mission testimonies, despite the fact that they had been preceded by an already secular movement a generation earlier. I did so because I found that the rescue mission stories were influential in mediating institutions — church homiletics, progressive reform, academic psychology, realist literature — which in turn informed the redemptive ideals and the storytelling styles more broadly associated with recovery in the 20th century. In other words, the rescue missions provided a master narrative of modern addiction storytelling. Read More »

Complete Quarterly Journal of Inebriety (1876-1914) Now Available Online

Editor’s note: This is an exciting development for researchers in addiction history and a welcome contribution from Weiner and White.

After more than a decade of persistent searching and meticulous collecting, a team led by historian William L. White and Hazelden Library Manager Barbara Weiner has acquired and digitized all 141 issues of the Quarterly Journal of Inebriety, which, from 1876 to 1914, documented the earliest stages of addiction medicine in the United States.

QJI issue 2 masthead clean editedThe Quarterly Journal of Inebriety (QJI) was published by the American Association for the Study and Cure of Inebriety (AACI), a group of managers and doctors that formed in 1870 to normalize and improve practices at the residential treatment institutions that had been springing up since midcentury. Its sole editor for 38 years was T.D. Crothers, superintendent at the Walnut Hill Asylum in Hartford, Connecticut and a leading advocate of the medical treatment of inebriety until his death in 1918. The QJI‘s central principle was the disease concept of alcohol and opiate inebriety and although it announced the AACI’s position on various issues, its commitment was to medical knowledge over moral or legal polemic. It was received with some hostility by critics of the disease concept, as well as by temperance advocates and religious reformers refused publication by Crothers for their unscientific approaches. It folded, upon the collapse of the field it represented, when public and political attention to the issue shifted decisively from individual vulnerabilities to dangerous–soon to be illegal–substances (Weiner and White, 2007, see below).

“As the nation’s first scientific addiction journal, [QJI] remains an important resource for us today, in terms of setting contemporary issues in historical context,” said White, emeritus senior research consultant for Illinois-based treatment provider Chestnut Health Systems. “I’m proud that we’ve been able to make it readily and comprehensively available to the public.” White began collecting issues while doing the research for his monumental history of addiction treatment, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1998). Weiner and her team at Hazelden took up the project in 2000. Read More »

Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Amund Tallaksen

Editor’s note: Our commentary to accompany yesterday’s excerpt from Addicts Who Survived comes from Amund Tallaksen (NB: if you’ve missed any of the series, please check out the series introduction, the first excerpt, and Eric Schneider’s commentary).  Amund is a doctoral candidate in history at Carnegie Mellon University, presently working on a dissertation examining drugs and drug control on post-World War Two New Orleans.  He has graciously taken some time away from the archives in Louisiana to offer these reflections on Willis Butler’s oral history. 

Shreveport, Louisiana, is a city most Americans know very little about. Close to the Texas and Arkansas borders, Shreveport is the largest urban area in northern Louisiana, the majority-Protestant and more culturally “southern” part of the state (as opposed to the majority-Catholic, geographically southern half). Americans with an interest in drug history, however, have an almost intimate knowledge of what happened in Shreveport in the early 1920s. This is largely because of one man, Willis P. Butler, who ran the narcotic dispensary in the city from 1919 to 1923, providing legal access to morphine for addicts in need. The Shreveport clinic was the longest functioning of all the narcotic clinics in the country (most of which were located in the Northeast) and when Willis P. Butler was forced to shut his operation down in 1923 it unequivocally marked the end of the clinic era.

Willis Butler, at the age of remembering
Willis Butler, at the age of remembering

The clinics were largely forgotten by mid-century, yet when methadone became increasingly available to American opiate addicts in the late 1960s, it created a renewed interest in the clinic system of the 1920s. Willis P. Butler was essentially “rediscovered” in the fall of 1971. One academic managed to get in touch with Butler in early October 1971, and the word quickly spread – the late Yale historian David F. Musto, for example, was among the earliest to get in touch with Butler, only a few weeks later. When interviewed by David Courtwright in 1978, Butler was over ninety years old and among the very few alive to tell the story of the clinics from personal experience. Butler was born in 1888, and graduated from Vanderbilt Medical School in 1911. After finishing his degree, Butler moved to Shreveport and was elected to the role of parish (county) physician and coroner of Caddo parish, a role which included tending to the needs of addicts.

Shreveport, 1919
Shreveport, 1919

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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Willis Butler’s Narrative

Editor’s note: Not every interview conducted for Addicts Who Survived was of an addict.  The work includes some fascinating oral histories of individuals with notable roles in the modern history of addiction and the drug war.  Among these, Dr. Willis Butler, who operated one of the most notable narcotic maintenance clinics opened around the time of the Harrison Act and closed soon thereafter.  We’ll have commentary to Dr. Butler’s oral history tomorrow.


Willis Pollard Butler was the most celebrated and controversial of all the early clinic doctors. Born in modest circumstances in Gibsland, Louisiana, in 1888, Butler moved with his family to Shreveport in 1899, where he took a summer job as a drugstore delivery boy. (Ironically, his chores included the delivery of dram bottles of morphine to the local addicts.) He eventually worked his way through Vanderbilt Medical School, graduating in 1911. Returning home, he applied his talents as chemist and bacteriologist for the Shreveport Board of Health, until he was elected parish physician and coroner in 1916. He served in that capacity for no fewer than forty-eight years. When interviewed in 1978, he was over ninety years old.1

            Butler was above all else a superb politician. He was handsome, charming, articulate, and on a first-name basis with everyone who counted in Shreveport. That, together with the efficient and discriminating manner in which his clinic was run, assured local support and temporarily frustrated the designs of interloping federal agents.

            Although Butler’s memory was phenomenal for a man of his years, it should be borne in mind that his is only one side of the story, that the agents who hounded him and the doctors who turned on him can make no rebuttal. As Butler himself observed, “I don’t know anybody connected with it—top, bottom, or middle—still living except me.For the sake of confidentiality, the names of addicts mentioned by Butler have been changed, as have the names of those who may have violated the law.

I was health officer, medical examiner for this district, and parish physician. One day—it was the third of May, 1919—Dr. Oscar Dowling, president of the state board of health, came to Shreveport. As usual, he called me, because I was representing the state board of health up in northern Louisiana. He asked me down to the hotel to make a culture of his throat—he had a sore throat. I went down there to see him and, as we walked out of the hotel, he said, “Butler, you having any problem up here with addicts?” I said, “Yes. I don’t know about particular problems, but we got a lot of them. I’m having trouble with them in jail, and there’s an awful lot of thievery and that sort of thing going on, and the police say that a lot of them are responsible.” He said, “Well, we have opened up a clinic down in New Orleans, under Dr. Marion Swords. I suggest that you come down there and see how it’s being done, because we have the approval of the government and the Treasury Department Narcotic Division. Maybe you could start the same thing up here.”

Well, I went to New Orleans. I knew Dr. Swords quite well; he was secretary-treasurer of the state board of health. He had this clinic right across from the courthouse on the corner of Conti Street; it looked like a little alley down in the French Quarter. What I saw was a bunch of derelicts coming in, and they were giving them a little vial—it looked like it might hold 15 or 20 cc. He said that they were putting morphine in there, a certain amount according to what they wanted them to start with. The next day, they would put in a little less, but the same amount of water. They were going to get them off of it by reduction. I said, “You don’t know much about addicts if you think that you can fool them as to whether they’re suffering or not.” I said I’d have nothing to do with that sort of thing at all, and I told Dr. Dowling that I did not want to assume any such responsibility.Read More »