I like The Hollow Men… The Island Across the River by Jaime Martinez Tolentino. This is the forth post of The Island Across the River, read the first one here, the second here and the third here. Remember, next Monday you can read more!
The second time that I was admitted to the Hospital for Special Surgery was during the summer of 1959. I had just completed the tenth grade at Charles Evans Hughes High School, much like in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men,” Not with a bang but a whimper. Hughes was no Joan of Arc, and I was still as depressed about my fall from grace as the year before.
Since I was sixteen then, I was again admitted to a pediatric floor. After my surgery of that summer on my left ankle, I was again in a long cast with an ungainly heel protruding from my foot, and once more, I progressed to the use of a wheelchair.
I didn’t know anyone in the ward, and so, I began roaming the halls in my wheelchair, and for some reason, I was again drawn to the solarium overlooking the river and the island across the way that had made me feel so uncomfortable the previous summer.
The effect this time wasn’t the same as the year before: it was worse. I felt repulsed by all the pain, the suffering and the humiliation emanating from that spot. As soon as I could, I asked the arts and crafts instructor about the place.
“Well, to begin with, the place is called Welfare Island. I believe that before that, in the early years of this century, it was known as Blackwell’s Island.”
“Both names sound ominous to me,” I interjected. “Blackwell suggest darkness, and Welfare suggests poverty.”
“Just about,” she agreed. She looked around to make certain that there was no one about, she lowered her voice, and then she added:
“It’s where New York City sends the dregs of humanity that it doesn’t want visitors to see on the streets.”
“What do you mean?” I inquired.
“You wait right here. I’ll be back in a minute,” she said, and then she left the
solarium. Now, I was even more intrigued about the island than before. When she returned, she had a thick, large-format old book under her arm.
“Here; read this,” she said to me. “When you’re finished with it, leave it at the nurses’ station with a note indicating that you’re returning it to the Arts and Crafts Instructor. They’ll get it to me.”
She handed me the volume, she smiled, and then she left. It was going on lunchtime.
Welfare Island: A History, was fascinating reading. What the book said about the place was horrible, and it confirmed my initial impression, but just learning about the loathsome island was, in itself, exciting. I spent a few days alone, in the solarium, reading it.
According to the book, before 1921, the place was called Blackwell’s Island, and one of its oldest buildings was the New York City Penitentiary dating back to 1832. Then, just seven years later, a public New York City Lunatic Asylum was opened there as well. A ruin from that asylum was still standing in 1959; the, so-called, “Octagon Tower.”
There had been a flurry of building activity on Blackwell’s Island from 1840 to the 1860’s when, first, in 1847, a debtor’s prison was built there. In 1852, that prison became a workhouse for those charged with petty infractions such as public drunkenness, panhandling and vagrancy. Just four years later, a smallpox hospital was constructed on the southern tip of the isle. Later, in 1858, City Hospital opened its doors on the island. It was described as “handsomely built but poorly administrated.” Toward the end of the nineteenth century, in the 1890’s, the Strecker Laboratory, the premier facility for bacteriological research in the U.S., was constructed on Blackwell’s Isle.
Although the island was renamed Welfare Island in 1921, it seems to have been largely forgotten and fallen into decay between the end of the 19th century and the 1930’s. This occurred as other islands in New York City’s waterways such as Ward’s Island, and Ellis Island, gained importance. According to my book, by the 1920’s and 1930’s Welfare Island “had become a bizarre fiefdom of gangsters serving time in the neglectful tenure of Joseph McCann, who ran the penitentiary. The mobsters were able to have all the comforts of home smuggled in and live like kings amid the deteriorating, squalid conditions surrounding them.” In 1936, the Welfare Island Penitentiary was closed and moved to Rikers Island.
However, in 1939, Goldwater Memorial Hospital opened its doors on the island as a chronic care facility. That hospital was the first public hospital in the U.S. devoted solely to the treatment of chronic diseases. The hospital had almost one thousand beds located in 7 buildings. Then, in 1952, another chronic care facility, the Bird S. Coler Hospital, also opened on Welfare Island. However, by then institutionalization on the island was winding down. During the 1950’s, the Strecker Laboratory, ceased operations on the island. Perhaps the only good news to come to the place during that decade was in 1955 when the Welfare Island Bridge from Queens opened, finally allowing automobile and truck access to the island, but only from Astoria, Queens.