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New York's South Brother Island to be a sanctuary

When the Dutch paid $24 for the island of Manhattan, it was a pretty good deal for such a centrally located piece of real estate.

Now, 381 years later, the city is adding another island to its portfolio. But this one probably won't turn out to be so lucrative.

The city plans to announce today that it has received the deed for South Brother Island, the last privately owned island in New York City.

The island, an overgrown, uninhabited 7-acre piece of land battered by wind in the East River, was sold to the investment group Hampton Scows Inc. by the city in 1975 for $10. Now the federal government is purchasing it from the group for $2 million, a markup of 20 million percent, and turning it over to the city's Parks Department.

It has become a significant nesting colony for several types of shorebirds, including egrets, cormorants and night herons.

"It's one of the few places of untrammeled nature left in the whole city," said Susan Clark, director of public affairs for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, which is facilitating the deed transfer.

"It's really just good luck it's been saved."

Unlike what usually happens when vacant land changes hands, its new owner won't be building anything on it.

The Parks Department intends to preserve it as a bird sanctuary and use it for educational purposes.

"People get it," said Bill Tai, the department's director of natural resources. "The burgeoning population of birds is a sign of health for the whole harbor."

The island was once owned by Jacob Ruppert, the owner of the Yankees from 1915 until the late 1930s.

He built a summer home there in the 1890s, a short boat ride away from his house on the Upper East Side.

Legend has it that Babe Ruth used to visit him there, and would swat balls into the East River.That myth seems unlikely to be grounded in fact, though, because Ruppert's house burned down in 1907, 13 years before he purchased Ruth's contract from the Boston Red Sox and seven years before the slugger even played in the majors.

In 1901, however, Ruppert did host the Borough of the Bronx baseball championship between two local clubs on the island.

After the fire, the land lay fallow until 1944, when it was purchased by John Gerosa, president of the Metropolitan Roofing Supply Company, who planned to build a summer retreat there for his workers.

The island passed through several owners before eventually ending up in the city's hands.Faced with a fiscal crisis in the mid-1970s and looking to unload its properties, the city sold it to Hampton Scows in 1975, according to Anthony Greene of the Bronx County Historical Society.

Representatives from the company did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In 2002, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) secured the funding for the resale."The species of birds migrate there from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico," he said, "not unlike the people in my district."

Although no serious plans were put forward through the decades to develop the island, bird and nature lovers are relieved South Brother Island is now off-limits.

"You know the way New York is," Serrano said. "Eventually, somebody would have bought it and decided to tear it all up. ... We can have one place in the great metropolis to see how it used to be."

Great Gotham bargains

A $10 investment in South Brother Island in 1975 just made somebody $1,999,990 richer. Here are some other great deals in city history.

Manhattan: City lore has it that Dutchman Peter Minuit purchased Manhattan from a group of Indians for $24 in goods, considered by many to be the greatest real-estate bargain in history.Yankees: In 1973, George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $8.7 million. The Bronx Bombers' worth today is estimated at $1.2 billion.

Babe Ruth: The Babe earned a combined $800,000 in 15 seasons with the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez will earn that much next season alone by the seventh inning of the fifth game.Any apartment buyer before 2002: Many apartment values have more than doubled since.

Island City It's easy to forget, but unless you live in the Bronx, living in New York City means being an islander. Here are some of the most obscure: U Thant Island This spit in the East River, across from the United Nations, is named for a 1960s secretary general and made largely of debris from river tunnel construction.

Mill Rock Given how expensive the Upper East Side is, it may be time to annex this island, which sits off East 96th Street. It's been home to a farm, seen a massive explosion and was a long-shot candidate to become a park.

North Brother Island South Brother's neighbor is bigger and badder, once home to a hospital that contained Typhoid Mary. It's also where the excursion steamship General Slocum ran aground in 1904, killing at least 1,021 people, mostly women and children.

Sources: Encyclopedia of New York, Forgotten NY


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