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Forgotten Island Becomes Park

Maria Torres recalled the day 10 years ago, when she and a few others she called “on-water thrill-seekers” paddled in kayaks from Hunts Point to a little, tree-filled island in the East River.

Then Torres, the president of The Point Community Development Corporation, dipped a quill pen in ink and added her signature to a document that made the island she rediscovered that day a city park.

On Nov. 20, South Brother Island, a short paddle away from Barretto Point Park, became the newest symbol of the South Bronx’s efforts to secure a greener future, Hunts Point activists and city and federal officials declared at the ceremony that deeded the island to the city.

“Hopefully, Hunts Point will become a hot bed of young ecologists and environmentalists,” said Torres as the privately owned island a half mile away officially changed hands.

Education Center Planned

Torres’ organization, along with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which operates the Bronx Zoo, bought the seven-acre South Brother Island for $2 million using federal funds secured by Rep. Jose Serrano.

Plans calls for schoolchildren to visit South Brother Island and study its wildlife. Area residents also will be able to learn about the island’s environmental riches and its role in the city’s urban ecology.

“It’s nice to have places like this where we can learn about its history and be able to help with the preservation work of the island,” said Amanda Septimo, who is excited about making her first trip to South Brother Island.

“Instead of going to Central Park or the Bronx Zoo, we can go to Barretto Point Park and then visit the island and enjoy what it has to offer,” said Rodrick Wynter, a resident who works as a securities paralegal.

For the Birds

The heavily-wooded island, located between the Bronx and Queens near Rikers Island, has long been a nesting colony for various species of birds, including the Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Double-crested Cormorant and the Black-crowned Night Heron.

All-told, 3,000 birds made the island their home during the nesting season, Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe told the gathering at the signing.

“Having a high quality wildlife habitat in the South Bronx is not only important for the community, but also for the native wildlife found there,” said Rose Harvey, regional director of the Trust for Public Land, a non-profit conservation organization that negotiated the purchase of the island.

Acquiring South Brother has been on the community’s radar since Torres and her compatriots in the informal South Bronx Kayak Club rediscovered it. Its acquisition is part of a larger environmental push in the South Bronx, which is plagued by poor air quality and has less park land than any other section of the city.

“This is a day where the South Bronx once again says that it refused to accept that we have to live in a certain way, but rather we can dream to live in any way that we want to live,” said Serrano at the deed-signing ceremony, which drew nearly 100 residents and community leaders, despite rain and chilly temperatures.

The Parks Department will maintain the undeveloped island and develop a preservation plan, officials said. The natural reserve will join its bigger (and more infamous) sibling, North Brother Island, in the family of nearly 29,000 acres of public parkland managed by the city agency.

A Colorful History

The 20-acre North Brother Island was home to a quarantine hospital that treated such infectious diseases as typhus and tuberculosis from the 1880s to the early 1940s. Mary Mallon, the cook who became known as “Typhoid Mary” for spreading the disease, was its most famous resident, confined there for 26 years.

The most notable resident and owner of South Brother Island was Jacob Ruppert, who owned the New York Yankees. Ruppert built a summer house on the island, and legend has it that Babe Ruth hit balls from the island into the East River, although Serrano noted that Ruppert’s house there had burned down years before the beer magnate purchased the Sultan of Swat from the Boston Red Sox.

South Brother Island had several landlords before it wound up in the hands of Hampton Scowls, a Long Island sand and gravel company. The company purchased the island from the city for $10 in 1975.

Jose Bazan, a legal assistant, is glad the island is in the city’s hands and available for the South Bronx community to enjoy. “We are fortunate because there are not enough places like this in the city, let alone right in our backyard, where we can enjoy the preservation of wild life,” Bazan said.