Our Lesser Islands

Turn on video volume for full experience | Long Island Sound, Chimney Sweeps: The site of big wrecks and small boating mishaps, as in 1935, when rowboaters were hit by a sudden gale. “Seven Marooned in Sound,” ran the headline. Bits of Bronx bedrock, they were once referred to as the Forgotten Islands.

I am floating up the shores of the Arthur Kill, the brown-water tidal strait that separates Staten Island from New Jersey, with Rob Buchanan, a teacher and boatbuilder. On the bedraggled green edge of Staten Island, the water’s end of Victory Boulevard, we pass a plastic chair, the universal marker of a secret water-viewing sanctuary, and the Pratt Industries paper mill, recycling New York City paper into boxes for Home Depot. On the port side, we see rows of oil refineries, along with an Amazon fulfillment center. The landscape is that of nature bathed in the smog of highway, refinery, and Newark airport. Just past the citgo refinery, we come to a crook in the Arthur Kill, in which sits a parenthesis-shaped roughly 100-acre spit of land. “Pralls Island up ahead!” says Buchanan.

This is our destination, a green patch that looks like a primeval forest broken down on the side of the New Jersey Turnpike. We row toward Pralls’s northern shore. In 1990, Exxon’s Bayway refinery spilled 567,000 gallons of oil into Arthur Kill. Now if you walk across the island, you see a landscape repeatedly redevastated by the efforts to save it: Not long after the oil-spill recovery began, when an Asian-long-horned-beetle infestation risked killing maple trees throughout the Northeast, the trees on Pralls were cut down to eliminate a potential breeding ground. Only the stumps remain. From there, the degradation cascaded. Invasive buckthorn shrubs drowned out the native species. When young shoots did grow, the deer ate them. The herons stopped landing there (for myriad reasons, not all of them clear), and stormwaters frequently washed over the island, blanketing it in plastic. Next came mile-a-minute, a vine that emigrated from Asia in the 1930s via contaminated holly seed. It grows up to six inches a day, smothering everything around it. The Parks Department has tried to control the vines by releasing another beetle, the mile-a-minute weevil, which also comes from Asia and is enlisted by ecologists in what is referred to as biological control.

Turn on video volume for full experience | Arthur Kill, Pralls Island: New York City’s ecological reawakening started here after a massive Exxon oil spill. This 100-acre speck of land was one of a series of hidden heron-nesting sites. It’s now designated “Forever Wild.”

In this minuscule island, roughly 20 city blocks big, you can read the entire recent history of the urban-ecology movement — its ambitions and struggles, its hopefulness and hopelessness — and there are similar stories being told across the archipelago of New York Harbor, if you stop to listen.

Islands are our planet’s poems: Tight, circumscribed, they are other, defined against the landmass from which they broke or the sea from which they emerged. In their isolation and their boundaries, they seem to make living more intense. It takes work to reach them, which can make them storehouses for all we hope to ignore; or, if we choose to embrace them, their preciousness forces human ambition skyward rather than outward.

We know this about our largest islands — the skyscraper came of age in Manhattan because of geological restrictions. But we can easily forget that the city is, in fact, a vast collection of islands. Every borough but the Bronx floats off from the Atlantic seaboard. No one can agree on the precise number of islands in New York waters — 30-odd, depending on how you count — but they are part of what makes the city so extraordinary, located at the mouth of one of the world’s largest natural harbors. The islands are our silent neighbors. It is easy to live here and never notice them. Until one day, driving down the FDR, you might look out at the pile of rocks off the southern coast of Roosevelt Island and wonder, What is that place?

Even the smallest of these islands holds in its tiny footprint morality tales, histories that can help us see ourselves more clearly: the planned community of Roosevelt, the tourist trap of Liberty, the slow-burning human-rights violation of Rikers. As with Pralls, we have more than once considered the islands repositories for waste or trash. More recently, that story has begun to change, and not just because we’ve become more attuned to our harbor ecology. As the last large industrial sites of the greater islands of New York are built over with condos and shops, and public housing is slowly sold away to private developers, these almost-water dots that are the city’s lesser islands have become newly contested spaces, fought for by conservationists, historians, activists, and developers.

Buchanan, my Arthur Kill guide, is what I would call a water activist, somebody who believes the harbor should not be fenced off or privatized but recognized for what it is — the largest public space in the city, a living, breathing thing. By his thinking, our survival in a rising-sea-level future depends on watery, sandy-beach edges, on marshes and creeks, as opposed to concrete walls and gates. Now, as we stand on the sandy beach at Pralls, surveying the ecologically devastated heron-less heron sanctuary, imagining its coast repopulated with millions of oysters, and catching the tips of lower Manhattan’s skyscrapers glinting in the sunlight, I begin to consider what else the islands might have to tell us about what is native and foreign, manmade and natural, past and future. Islands direct us to examine what divides us or disconnects us, what makes one place a sanctuary, the other an asylum.

Part I

Lower Bay Islands

A trash heap turned bird habitat and a legacy of quarantine.

Turn on video volume for full experience | Jamaica Bay, Barren Island: No longer technically an island but attached in the 1920s to the bay edge of Flatbush Avenue, this once-rural high ground specialized in recycling animal carcasses, thus helping inspire the name of adjacent Dead Horse Bay. The New York Sanitary Utilization company today might brand itself as a wellness company, rendering grease into soap, but in 1896, when the city moved to stop dumping waste in the harbor and awarded a garbage contract to the company, it was criticized by a congressman, who said, “The best work ever done in the matter of garbage consumption was when it burned itself to the ground.”

The harbor is huge — four times the size of the city — and it’s easiest to think about in regions. Jamaica Bay, the southeasterly section of the harbor, is a marshy interior sea, a cross between the Jersey shore and the Hamptons, filled with reed-covered little islands — Big Egg, Little Egg, Ruffle Bar, Yellow Bar, and Silver Hole — and one big island, Broad Channel, the inhabited island, with fishing boats everywhere. If you pass out of Jamaica Bay through the Rockaway Inlet and look starboard, you’ll see the top of White Island floating just beyond the Belt Parkway.

White Island doesn’t look like Pralls. It’s classically beautiful in the sense of seeming “natural.” Yet it wasn’t formed by a glacier, like Staten Island, or by any other geologic forces. It was made from trash deposited in a salt marsh less than a century ago. It was also made by the golf course next door pouring asphalt on top to prevent sand from blowing on its greens. In 1995, the Parks Department added Rockaway sand to the awkward hump, then surrounded it with acres of spartina grass and, on the top, high coastal grasses specifically attractive to grassland-loving birds. Two decades after that, the former trash heap is now a popular rest station on the highly bird-trafficked East Coast flyway: a habitat for savanna sparrows, field sparrows, and grasshopper sparrows.

White Island is not perfect. Phragmites, the common, side-of-the-highway marsh-killing reed, is nosing in, and then, in a maybe more complicated way, cottonwood has arrived. Cottonwood is a native species, but in a manmade native grassland, cottonwoods displace the grass that attracts the birds. To keep the island a migratory-bird layover might mean cutting native trees. We’re taught to see the line between native and invasive species as clearly delineated, but the history of the islands can test those definitions.

Turn the boat back into Rockaway Inlet, enter the Lower Bay just past Coney Island, and in front of you are Hoffman and Swinburne, in the Lower Bay waters off the shore of Staten Island, islands constructed not to attract natives but to isolate so-called foreigners. Easily viewable from the long pier on Staten Island’s South Beach, they were built from scratch in the 1860s after Staten Island residents burned down the quarantine facilities in Tompkinsville that housed newly arrived immigrants sick with yellow fever and smallpox — too close, the Staten Islanders thought, to their homes. “The Staten Islanders, to a man, have all endorsed the arson,” wrote the New York correspondent for the San Francisco Bulletin.

Lower Bay, Swinburne: From a 1929 newspaper report: “Swinburne Island, abandoned Federal plague station, known and dreaded by superstitious immigrants as the Island of the Dead, has been despoiled by vandals from Staten Island beaches nearby. Drunken bathers of both sexes have broken into the mortuary. Using the old crematory as the scene of their destruction, they have smashed dozens of urns, scattering to the winds the ashes of foreigners who died at America’s gateway.”

The quarantines would mark the beginning of a decades-long push to restrict the flow of immigrants, first by their health, then by country of origin, an effort for which the outermost islands often served as a first defense. “There is no other gate to the nation’s greatest port,” a Wichita correspondent wrote of Hoffman and Swinburne in 1910. By the middle of the 1920s, the passage of the Emergency Quota Act and the National Origins Act had so limited immigration as to make the quarantines unnecessary.

A decade ago, herds of harbor seals began visiting. Seals hadn’t been seen in the harbor in a century, when the local population was hunted out of existence. They now number in the hundreds. These immigrants the National Parks Department has decided to protect. When they’re around, you can see the seals from the long pier off the Staten Island boardwalk, the ruins of the old quarantine buildings behind them.

Jamaica Bay, White Island: Named for Alfred T. White, a Brooklyn philanthropist and developer who, along with Standard Oil heir Frederick B. Pratt, donated the marsh to the city. It served as a dump until the Parks Department turned it into a model of migratory-bird-habitat restoration.

Jamaica Bay, Ruffle Bar: On September 2, 9, and 16 in 1888, the Windward Club Races, an annual yachting contest, were held on a ten-mile course from Ruffle Bar Island in Jamaica Bay. “Four very handsome silver cups are offered by the club for the first and second boats in each class,” wrote the boating correspondent for the New York ‘Sun.’ “The bay offers unusual inducements for small craft and amateur sailers [sic], and has a large number of each. The boats have a reputation of being as fast as they can make ’em.”

Video: Source Photograph: Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty Images

Part II

Upper Bay Islands

Where history, immigration, and tourism converge.

Turn on video volume for full experience | Upper Bay, Liberty Island: We may think of Liberty Island as a beacon to all immigrants, but it wasn’t designed as one. Its famous statue was proposed by Edouard-René Lefèbvre de Laboulaye, a Frenchman, to celebrate the abolition of slavery in the U.S., though by the time the dedication came, in 1886, Northern troops had pulled out of the South, abandoning the black population to fend for itself against violent whites. “Shove the Bartholdi statue, torch and all, into the ocean until the ‘liberty’ of this country is such as to make it possible for an industrious and inoffensive colored man in the South to earn a respectable living for himself and family,” wrote the Cleveland ‘Gazette,’ an African-American paper.

Turn north and pass under the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge. Ahead are islands that were once defensive and are now our WELCOME signs, starting with Liberty. More jobs in the city are currently associated with tourism than with manufacturing (four times more) or the tech industry (two times) or even, by a hair, finance, which makes Liberty Island the hospitality industry’s Wall Street: In 2008, about 33 million people visited New York; last year, it was 65.2 million, a record high, with tourists crowding out locals like human mile-a-minutes. Standing in line with the over 4 million annual passengers to Liberty Island, I hear the ticket sellers repeatedly and patiently explain the months-long wait to visit the statue’s crown and then, as consolation, sell 20,000 tickets to its base every day at $18.50 each.

Further up, at the mouth of the East River, sits Governors Island, the city’s historic seat of military control. The Dutch built a fort there while colonizing Manhattan, and when the British began colonizing, they took it for themselves. Ditto the British colonists when they turned into Americans, until, finally, in 2003, the U.S. government, having decommissioned the base and turned it into a monument, sold the island to New York City for a dollar. It has now been rebranded as a recreational paradise: bike rentals, taco trucks, oysters and artists galore — artists being the high coastal grasses of the city ecosystem, a native species that has to be hand-cultivated to survive.

Private residential development is forbidden on the island, which does not mean you can’t spend the night. For $150, you can rent a premium tent for two, or for $550 a luxury tent with a harbor view. Up next: an arts center, a spa, and possibly a hotel. Even the New York Times asked, “Is this the end of Governors Island?”

Part III

East River Islands

A notorious prison, a sewage-treatment plant, and a heron sanctuary.

Turn on video volume for full experience | East River, U Thant (Belmont) Island: One of over a dozen of New York’s small islands photographed for this issue over two months by Jeff Chien-Hsing Liao, who reached the islands by land, sea, and even air — using DJI M600 Pro+ Hasselblad A6D and DJI Mavic 2 Pro drones to capture aerial shots of Roosevelt, Hart, Columbia, and Nonations islands.

Once you enter the East River, the air changes, still salty but drier; the ocean wind is gone, the currents more complicated. Beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, you might see a police boat or the flash of hundreds of silversides running from a school of hungry striped bass. You see Dumbo on your starboard side, the new towers on the Lower East Side off port, and eventually U Thant Island up ahead, a bodega-size rock clump constructed from construction debris left over from what subway workers still call the Steinway Tunnel but everyone else knows as the route of the 7 train.

Originally called Belmont Island, it was renamed U Thant thanks to a few followers of guru Sri Chinmoy, a peace activist who ran a meditation center in Jamaica, Queens, and, according to his followers, wrote 1,500 books. Among those followers were U.N. staff, including U.N. Secretary-General U Thant, a Burmese diplomat. When Thant died in 1974, Chinmoy’s U.N. contingent leased Belmont, renamed it, and erected a peace arch. Birds, in particular cormorants, now nest in the arch’s folds.

Given its proximity to the U.N., the island has occasionally been used for protest. In 1972, members of the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, protesting a U.N. speech by Leonid Brezhnev, took it over. The protesters borrowed a powerboat for themselves, rented a tugboat, and packed the latter with journalists. Then the protesters — who included Bronx Borough President Robert Abrams and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton — renamed the island “Soviet Jewry Freedom Island,” unfurled a banner, and occupied the rock pile for a few hours. Finally, a police boat showed up. The cops radioed back asking for procedure: “The borough presidents are here!”

The islands’ names are never a fixed thing. Take Roosevelt Island, which is said to have first been named Minnehanonck, meaning, depending on your source, “nice island.” In the old notes from the city government in the 1630s, Wouter van Twiller, a Dutch West India Company colonizer, is reported to have convinced the local Lenni-Lenape community that the land was no longer theirs and offered them what might have been perceived as money for land or as a payment on which to base some kind of sharing of resources. Van Twiller, who later claimed what would become Wards and Randalls islands, raised pigs on Roosevelt — calling it Varckens, or “hogs island.” The British colonists renamed it Blackwells and used it as a penitentiary. In 1841, the New York City Lunatic Asylum was opened, and a decade later the island’s first workhouse. By 1921, now home to the Smallpox Hospital, Maternity Hospital, and City Hospital, the city rebranded it Welfare Island.

Turn on video volume for full experience | East River, Randalls Island: The fulcrum of the Triborough Bridge — it’s where highways from Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx all meet — Randalls is also where Pelé first played for the New York Cosmos; Usain Bolt set the then world record for the 100-meter dash (9.72 seconds); and the New York Black Yankees, a Negro League team, played their 1938 season at the now-demolished Downing Stadium. In July 1970, it was almost the site of a second Woodstock, New York Pop, a festival that would have featured everyone from John Sebastian to Sly and the Family Stone, with proceeds going to the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Then ticket prices fell and acts backed out; the Weathermen threatened an attack on America. “Dig it, kiddies,” wrote the ‘East Village Other,’ “THERE’S NOT GOING TO BE ANOTHER WOODSTOCK! The real one was an accident, anyway.”

But by the 1950s, several of the institutions had closed and about half the island was abandoned. Eventually, the state hired architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee to draw up new plans for Welfare. The pair designed what amounted to a small town: apartments, shops, parks, a town center, and one main street, which would be low on cars thanks to a central garage. To meet requirements set by Nixon’s Housing secretary, some of Johnson’s buildings had to get bigger than he wanted, and the courtyards were disconnected from the river. “This is no longer my island,” Johnson cried. But in many ways, the island, renamed Roosevelt during construction, worked. To this day, despite new development pressures, like Cornell’s planned tech campus, it has a more racially and economically diverse populace than comparable communities. As a sleeper utopia, it’s an odd place physically, a showcase of Brutalist architecture and purposely preserved ruined asylums and open spaces — but it is also, true to its name, a nice island.

Just past Roosevelt, at the intersection of the Harlem and the East rivers, is an island graveyard. Twice a day at this spot, the tides shift. For half of the day, the water from the lower harbor runs up into Long Island Sound, and then in the second half it runs back. Meanwhile, the Harlem River, with its own system of high and low tides, adds to the chaos of currents. For most of recorded time, this exchange of billions of gallons through the constricted channel also washed against a smattering of islands, making the spot so treacherous it nearly stopped the British fleet in 1776. At Hell Gate, as the spot is known, 1,000 ships ran aground in an average year. Big ships avoided it and instead sailed around Montauk, on Long Island, a drastically longer trip — until 1876, when the Army started blowing up every island except Mill Rock.

East River, Roosevelt Island: Today, tourists take the tram to Roosevelt to see the cherry blossoms at the finally finished FDR memorial by Louis Kahn. In 1842, while visiting so-called slums in New York, Charles Dickens took a boat there to see the Octagon Tower, New York’s new so-called insane asylum. “Everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful,” he wrote. “The moping idiot, cowering down with long disheveled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror.” The creator of Scrooge liked the architecture, calling it “spacious and elegant.” In 2006, it was converted to luxury rentals: a two-bedroom, two-bath goes for $4,700 a month.

It was the largest man-made explosion in human history, as far as anyone covering it knew. Crowds lined the shores, carts stopped in the streets; in Yorktown on the Manhattan side and Astoria in Queens, people secured their furniture. Beer gardens were packed and (secure) rooftops crowded. “Finally, at 2 o’clock 48 minutes and 30 seconds, a roaring, reverberating sound was heard taking everyone by surprise,” a Boston Globe correspondent wrote. “A very palpable vibration of the earth followed, lasting about two seconds.”

From the Times: “Then came a grand and thrilling spectacle. The water rose up like a wall of many geysers, separate, yet united, to a height from 60 to 70 feet.” Vibrations from the explosion were felt as far away as Princeton as a small flock of islands disbanded, their names like ghosts: Hog’s Back, Frying Pan, Bald-Headed Billy. Shipping trade reportedly increased by $4 million worth a day.

The islands have always been part of the city’s infrastructure, sometimes quite literally. Just past Mill Rock, on the conjoined twin islands of Randalls and Ward, the FDNY maintains a training facility where firefighters start practice fires. The Parks Department keeps its vehicles there, under a 45,000-square-foot green roof. It is also home to the city’s finest nitrogen-processing sewage-treatment facility, handling 275 million gallons of fluid waste every day from the western Bronx and the Upper East Side of Manhattan — 12,000 acres and a million people — and, crucially, taking the nitrogen out of the water sent back into the harbor. Want to kill aquatic life fast? Pump nitrogen into the water. The Wards Island plant is like a giant apology for building it on what was once Little Hell Gate Salt Marsh, and building so many others on so many other wetlands. Marshes are natural waste-treatment systems, feeding harbor life with all the stuff they produce, but we built over the marsh to combine Wards and Randalls. In 1939, that’s just what you did with islands. Islands were for waste, people included.

Which brings us to Rikers, just ahead in the center of the East River as we prepare to sail into Pelham Bay and Long Island Sound. Before prisoners lived on Rikers, it was a dump. Garbage scows coming from all over the city brought rats with them. The Department of Correction once estimated there were a million rats on the island. In 1933, to avoid ashes from burning trash being blown on the World’s Fair, the dump was closed, and the prison soon opened. All through the ’60s and ’70s, the prison suffered from overcrowding, and in the ’80s, during the war against drugs that attacked low-income neighborhoods, the jails became even more like POW camps: strip searches, rapes, brutality of all kinds, solitary confinement, inhumane treatment of the mentally ill.

Turn on video volume for full experience | East River, Rikers Island: Before it was a correctional facility, Rikers was a farm, on land owned since 1664 by the Dutch family Rycken, then a dump. The prison opened in the 1930s. In 1957, it wasn’t half as big as it is today, so a DC-6A was able to crash-land after its La Guardia takeoff and slide through a long field; inmates rescued the survivors. By the 1970s, its conditions were already notorious: “Rikers Island — Tear It Down” was the headline in the fall 1970 issue of the radical feminist magazine ‘Battle Acts.’

Some 40 years later, the city has committed to tearing it down (by a still-up-in-the-air date), but then what? A city commission proposed extending a runway at La Guardia and building a new terminal, expanding airport capacity by 40 percent. Developers smell housing, though the airport limits building heights. The people who have worked for decades to close Rikers want the island to memorialize the loss not just of individuals — children who committed suicide, those who watched their lives waste away because they couldn’t make bail — but to the communities around the city that suffered disproportionately from Rikers. “People don’t want some giant statue; they want stories, stories of what happened, so it can never happen again,” says Brandon Holmes, the coordinator for the CLOSErikers campaign. He imagines Rikers as a place that makes enough clean energy to close the power plants that still pollute low-income neighborhoods, an island that restores health.

Rikers, when it’s closed, could end up in limbo, as for a long time did nearby North Brother Island, once an institutional campus dotted with decorative trees, now the largest forest in the South Bronx. It is currently another heron sanctuary, slowly being restored with native species by the Parks Department. But it has also been, variously, an isolation hospital for people with infectious diseases, a housing complex for veterans studying on the GI Bill after WWII, and a home for people with drug addictions. Typhoid Mary was quarantined there for a quarter of a century till she died in 1938. She was not the only typhoid carrier in the city, but rather a poor immigrant who made the mistake of infecting her wealthy employers.

Part IV

Long Island Sound

Where a potter’s field leads to a megamansion on a private island.

Long Island Sound, Hart Island: In August 1971, 18,000 young people took a ferry from City Island, in the Bronx, to Hart Island, then as now the city’s burial ground, for a drug-and-alcohol-free music festival to raise money for Phoenix House, which for a short time ran an addiction-treatment center there. “On the mile-long Island, young people in jeans and colorful T-shirts lounged around the spacious festival grounds, enjoyed hamburgers and pizzas, went on rides, tossed baseballs for Kewpie dolls and listened to several rock bands in concert,” according to one account. Four pot smokers were asked to leave the island.

I meet my friend Marie Lorenz and her husband, Jeff Williams, at Orchard Beach, a couple of miles by car from City Island, the old boatbuilding village sometimes described as “Nantucket in the Bronx.” Lorenz has brought a boat she built, which she calls the Tide and Current Taxi. We are headed out to see some Bronx islands, ones I’d previously looked at only on a map. These are the little islands at the end of the East River as it changes into Long Island Sound. Entering down on the Arthur Kill, I could feel Jersey, but up here Connecticut is in the air. The rocky coast points toward Maine.

We paddle slowly out of the lagoon behind Orchard Beach, coming around Pelham Bay Park’s northernmost corner. Our hoped-for goal is a little island called Nonations, an island owned, so the story goes, by neither the Dutch nor the English. The islands in Pelham Bay are like islands at the end of the world, rocky, broken ledges that seem too small for anything. Very quickly we pass Hog Island, then head out into Long Island Sound.

Right away we can see Hart Island, the city’s burial ground for people who are poor or whose bodies are unclaimed for one reason or another. It was once a training ground for the Union Army, and after the Civil War, it became a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate soldiers. The city bought it in 1868 and began using it as a potter’s field. These days, inmates at Rikers are in charge of burying the dead — in trenches, bodies stacked on bodies, as they have been for more than a century.

The exception was for a handful of people who died of AIDS during the AIDS crisis. They are buried individually and apart — on the site of an old sewage-treatment plant, a fact discovered by Melinda Hunt, an artist who believes the public ought to be able to visit Hart. Trips are currently organized by the city twice a month for family members. The City Council is making moves to turn the island over to the Parks Department, which has been reluctant to manage a cemetery.

Unintentionally, the burial practices at Hart have made it one of the largest natural, ecologically sustainable burial grounds in the U.S., with some one million bodies unembalmed in simple pine boxes, decomposing so that, eventually, other bodies could be buried on the same site. Hunt believes that Hart Island as it is operated could handle all of the 50,000 people who die every year in New York City.

The cops are naturally sensitive about Hart Island, especially when inmates are digging graves, and sure enough, when we row too close later that day, a helicopter comes over Lorenz’s boat, followed by a fireboat: The crew approach, wave, move on. We pass near Chimney Sweeps, but I want to see Rat Island, a private patch of rock watched over by a statue of William Tell, a gift to the man who owns the place, a Swiss-American who bought the island for $160,000 in 2011. A retired Port Authority worker, he can see the island from his City Island home address.

Long Island Sound, South Brother: Claimed for the Dutch West India Company in 1614 by Captain Adriaen Block (namer and claimer of Rhode Island’s Block Island), South Brother has been many things: the summer home, starting in 1894, of Jacob Ruppert, a brewer and the owner of the New York Yankees when Babe Ruth was on the team; the site of the 1901 Bronx baseball championship; a workers’ retreat as envisaged by John Gerosa, a roofing-company president, who planned cottages on the seven acres; and a heron sanctuary, after the city, at the urging of the NYC’s Audubon Society, bought it in 2007.

We land, and I walk the main street, this street being a 40-foot path of broken-up rock not unlike the one that makes up the rest of the five- or six-parking-space-size island. I admire the Tell statue and the street sign for William Tell Way. The New York Post reported that the owner was looking to make the island into a glamping site, though the Post also said the island is two and a half acres, and frankly it didn’t seem that big to me (though high tide was coming). We row back toward Hog Island, where Williams, Lorenz’s husband, finds some flotsam for a sculpture he is planning.

Next in view is High Island, a little spot of land with a shack and a tall radio tower: It’s where WCBS-AM and WFAN transmit, each of which operates at about 50,000 watts, the signal so strong that you can get the Fan in Chicago or in South Florida if the weather is right. California, Jamaica, Sweden, various parts of Canada, and Japan — all places that have reported hearing WCBS Newsradio over the years thanks to an old emergency-broadcasting policy that authorized some signals to be strong enough to reach anywhere in case of a national emergency. Traffic and weather have been known to transmit through City Island radiators.

Long Island Sound, High Island: The radio tower pictured here has been known to transmit as far as Chicago, California, and even Japan.

The water is clear and beautiful, the sky big. We spot Columbia Island in Westchester, just over the invisible city line: a private island, bought in 2007 by a physician and real-estate developer, Al Sutton, who converted it into a 5,600-square-foot luxury home. The closer you get, the more you see it’s built for the end-times, with a desalination machine, solar panels, rooms with storm shutters, and at the edge of the hexagon-shaped island, a five-foot-thick storm wall. He never lived there. “I was more ambitious when I purchased it,” Sutton told CNBC, “and now, in my 80s, it’s not as practical.” It’s selling for $13 million.

We paddle around for Nonations to no avail. Markers are hard to understand, shores distances tough to determine using apps, using maps, using anything. Finally we spot some rocks causing a stir as the tide is changing — Nonations! We make land at a nearby craggy swatch of schist with just enough room for three people and a hole in the rock that makes a great tie-off for Lorenz’s boat. Green algae covers everything. I can’t say I was sure what island I was on at the time, or now, as I sift through old maps and charts, all of which seem futile as the waters rise.

Long Island Sound, Nonations: In ‘The Other Islands of New York City,’ Sharon Seitz and Stuart Miller offer two derivations for the name of this hard-to-even-see, nearly submerged crumble of islands: Neither the Dutch nor the English claimed them, or a notation was misspelled. As the sea level rises, they move further from all nation-states, the water like whiteout on our maps.

The day reminds me of a trip I’d taken with Lorenz to see my favorite island, one that is nearly impossible to visit. It’s not really called anything, because it’s not on any modern maps, but it used to be called Oyster Island, a sunken sliver of rock located just southwest of the Statue of Liberty, hidden in plain sight. These days it’s underwater mostly, due to the lack of oysters that would cause it to jut above the sea. But at a super-low tide, under the auspices of a supermoon, it can just barely be viewed by boat.

Last spring, I took the Staten Island Ferry with Lorenz on the new-moon tide. We didn’t know if the island would appear, but when we went past on the ferry, we saw it, just a ledge of rock, a ridge battling off tide and windy surf. I started to think that this invisible island had somehow survived renaming — that it had survived treaties and contracts and development deals and that it had something to tell us about all those things, their enduring complications. I wanted to maybe see it again, maybe not, but never to name it, and to appreciate the way that sometimes it’s land, sometimes it’s not, making it impossible to map, impossible to own.

Long Island Sound, Columbia: Now a private island, it was owned by CBS, which named it for the Columbia Broadcasting System, then sold it to two radio stars, Peter Lind Hayes and Mary Healy, who lived there and broadcast their breakfast chat daily on WOR. Listeners implored them to argue. “We rarely agree,” said Healy, “but lovingly.” The couple called the island Paley’s Pebble, after the CBS founder. A boat came with it, and Hayes used it to break ice for New York Athletic Club rowers. Their radio show hosted boating personalities, such as Morris Weeks Jr., the editor of ‘Boating Encyclopedia.’ “Everyone of note with an interest in boating eventually finds their way to our show,” Hayes told ‘Motor Boating’ magazine in June 1965.

Videos produced by Shelby Boamah, Granger Willson, Brittany Stephanis, and Liz Rowley.
Transportation provided by New York Sailing Center on City Island and American Littoral Society. Drone photographs made in collaboration with DJI and Hasselblad.

*A version of this article appears in the August 19, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Touring the Overlooked Islands of New York