Over several centuries, the boroughs and surrounding suburbs of New York City have seen booms and busts, births and rebirths, revolutions and resurrections. As the nation’s original immigration center and the hub of business and industry as well as arts and culture, New York City is an urban explorer’s paradise, with hundreds of fascinating sites and structures just waiting to be discovered.
The Best Abandoned Places in NYC
Below, we’ll take a look at eight of the most interesting abandoned places in New York City and what you might expect to encounter if you choose to visit them yourself.
Hart Island (Long Island Sound/Bronx)
Despite its proximity to the Bronx, this 101-acre island in the western Long Island Sound is relatively unknown by most New Yorkers. Though it has no living residents, Hart Island is inhabited by more than one million deceased individuals whose bodies went unclaimed or whose families were unable to pay for funeral costs.
Before becoming a massive potter’s field, the island housed Confederate prisoners during the Civil War. In 1869, New York City took over the site and converted it to a cemetery; for the next century, it was home to a women’s insane asylum, a work camp for juvenile delinquents, a tuberculosis hospital, a quarantine area during the yellow fever epidemic and an overflow zone for Rikers Island inmates.
The island was briefly used as a Navy barracks during World War II, but returned to the jurisdiction of the New York Department of Corrections in 1946. After two decades of housing convicts, it was transformed into a drug rehabilitation center from 1966 to 1976. The Department of Corrections ceased its prison operations on the island in 1982, when it was dedicated entirely to burials.
Today, inmates from Rikers Island perform all burials, maintenance and other labor on Hart Island, including about 2,000 interments per year, roughly one-third of which are stillborn babies and infants. Although the site is technically a public burial ground, only family members of those laid to rest on the island are permitted to visit, and even they face a mountain of bureaucratic red tape beforehand.
Visitors must provide a death certificate; visits are only permitted one day per month; and poor documentation makes it virtually impossible to visit a specific grave site. However, the nonprofit Hart Island Project is working to make the island more publicly accessible and to identify the forgotten souls buried there with an interactive map of individuals located in various sections of the grounds.
Red Hook Grain Terminal (Brooklyn)
Built roughly a century ago in an effort to revive the struggling Erie Canal shipping industry, the Red Hook Grain Terminal was a state-operated grain elevator stationed along the busy waterfront in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. Made up of 54 round silos with a total capacity of two million bushels, the facility featured the most cutting-edge mechanical innovations of its time, lifting grain from ship holds to the top of the terminal and using a series of movable spouts to route the grain into vertical storage bins.
Unfortunately, the installation of the Red Hook terminal roughly coincided with the start of the precipitous decline of the grain trade at the Port of New York, dropping from 90 million bushels per year in the 1930s to less than 2 million per year in the 1960s. Local union regulations made it far more costly for shippers to unload the grain in New York compared to the ports of Baltimore, New Orleans and Philadelphia, further cementing the industry’s demise.
The surrounding neighborhood declined alongside the businesses, with vacant warehouses and crumbling docks dotting the waterfront and black mold overtaking the once-proud concrete grain elevator. The Red Hook Houses, one of the city’s earliest public housing projects, deteriorated into a magnet for crime and drug distribution in the 1980s and 1990s, although recent gentrification has brought improved conditions and new businesses like craft breweries and even an IKEA into the area.
However, multiple proposals for repurposing the Red Hook Grain Terminal over the years have all been unsuccessful, and it remains an industrial eyesore nearly 50 years after the final freighter docked there to unload its cargo.
Dead Horse Beach (Brooklyn)
Unlike much of New York City, where abandoned developments are razed, removed and rebuilt, the relics of the past remain as a visible reminder of the history of Dead Horse Beach in Brooklyn.
Perhaps the oldest marker of its previous use is a large millstone nestled along Millstone Trail adjacent to Dead Horse Bay, reflecting the 17th-century Dutch settlers who relied on the bay’s shifting tides to grind wheat into flour.
In the mid-19th century, the region was known for its abundance of horse-rendering plants, which lent the beach its ominous name. It was not uncommon to see bones and other debris from the plants washing up on the beach during that time, and the air was thick with the foul scent of the processing plants that converted the carcasses of horses and other animals into glue, fertilizer and other products.
As motor vehicles began to replace horses as the primary mode of transportation in the early 20th century, the plants closed and the sight of bones and other byproducts became scarce.
During this time, the marsh surrounding Dead Horse Bay was converted into a landfill. After it reached capacity in the 1930s, a cap was placed over the site; two decades later, the seal burst, allowing trash to spew forth onto the beach. Since then, garbage has continued to escape from the breach, with thousands of old bottles, remnants of leather shoes and various other bits of metal, glass and plastic (along with the occasional horse bone shard) washing up over the sand.
This bleak scene means the beach is usually almost empty, making it easy to explore. Be sure to wear sturdy shoes, insect repellant and a pair of gloves if you plan to sift through any of the debris.
Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital (East River/Manhattan)
In light of the coronavirus pandemic and other similar global outbreaks (SARS, MERS and Ebola, just to name a few), it can be fascinating to learn about how massive outbreaks of deadly disease were handled in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In New York City, only a few of these quarantine hospitals remain standing for public consideration, including the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital, which was built in 1856 to combat the “loathsome malady” of that era.
Designed by famed architect James Renwick Jr.—the mastermind behind St. Patrick’s Cathedral—the hospital was constructed using labor from inmates at the nearby insane asylum. In its 19 years in operation, the facility treated around 7,000 patients, many of whom were recent immigrants wary of the smallpox vaccine or Union soldiers who had contracted the virus on the battlefield.
In a departure for similar hospitals of the time, it accepted patients regardless of their ability to pay, with as many as 100 charity patients housed in wards on the lower level while paying patients enjoyed private rooms upstairs.
When the hospital exceeded its capacity in 1875, patients were moved to larger facilities on North Brother Island and the building was repurposed as a training hospital for nurses. After it shuttered in 1950, it began a precipitous physical decline; though declared a landmark by New York City in 1976, it remains in a crumbling state of ruin visible to curious locals and tourists.
Staten Island Boat Graveyard (Staten Island)
Located in Rossville, this site—known officially as the Donjon Iron and Metal Scrap Processing Facility and colloquially as the Arthur Kill Boat Yard, Witte Marine Scrap Yard and Tugboat Graveyard—is the last remaining commercial marine salvage yard in New York City. Currently, around 100 abandoned marine vessels in varying states of decay sit in the property’s muddy marshland, down from a previous peak of about 400 ships.
Comprised primarily of cargo ship skeletons and tugboat carcasses, the site is home to several historically significant vessels, including the U.S.S. PC-1264, the first World War II-era Navy ship to host a primarily African-American crew, and the Abram S. Hewitt, the New York City Fire Department ship that served as the command center during the 1904 sinking of a passenger ferry that ultimately took more than 1,000 lives.
Access to the boatyard is extremely challenging, with “No trespassing” signs littering the area and the marshy conditions making it difficult to reach on foot. Still, some ambitious visitors, historians and photographers have gotten close to the site using small boats and kayaks, while others have constructed a makeshift path from metal scraps, planks of wood and other materials. If you go, consider wearing tall boots or waders and expect to get wet and muddy.
Fort Tilden National Park (Queens)
Nestled on the Rockaway Peninsula of Queens, this former Army base traces its origins as far back as the War of 1812, although the fort itself wasn’t built until 1917. It saw its most intense period of use during the Cold War, when military and intelligence officials relied on its key location to craft coastal and anti-aircraft defenses.
The site was taken over by the National Park Service in 1974 and incorporated into the 26,000-acre Gateway National Recreation Area, though many of its structures have continued their slow decay through exposure to time and the elements.
Visitors to Fort Tilden will note the imposing structures of Battery Harris East and Battery Harris West towering over the thick vegetation lining the property’s main road; these twin defensive positions once held 16-inch cannons to protect the citizens of New York City with their 30-mile range.
Two smaller silos, Battery Kessler and Battery 220, are mostly concealed by the dense brush growing on the dunes near the beach, while other battlements and underground missile silos—including those designed for carrying nuclear warheads—are blocked from public access by gates and warning signs.
In addition to the abandoned weapons storage sites on the western side of the peninsula, Fort Tilden also offers opportunities for more traditional recreation, including soccer and baseball fields, a community garden and a few theater companies.
Ellis Island Immigrant Hospitals (New York Harbor)
Though Ellis Island is almost universally associated with immigrants seeking a better life and the fulfillment of the American Dream, many of the individuals who crossed its shores in the early 20th century had a less-than-idyllic experience.
Upon arriving at Ellis Island, immigrants were screened for a long list of medical and psychological problems, and hundreds of daily arrivals who didn’t pass muster were redirected to the state-of-the-art hospital complex on the south side of the island.
Pregnancy, visible eye diseases, heart issues, tuberculosis, scarlet fever, influenza and “mental defects” were just a handful of the conditions that could cause someone to be detained on the island. However, the hospitals on Ellis Island had a remarkably low death rate, meaning patients treated there were generally much better off than the residents of the crowded tenements where many new arrivals to the city wound up living.
At its peak in 1924, the hospital campus had 30 buildings, among them a general hospital, an infectious disease ward and even residences for the doctors and nurses, who lived on the island with their patients. The hospital ceased operations in 1954 and sat dormant for nearly six decades until the nonprofit Save Ellis Island began hosting “hard hat tours” to raise money to restore the historic buildings.
The 90-minute tour takes visitors through the decaying corridors and rooms of the infectious and contagious disease wards, kitchen, laundry building, mortuary and autopsy room; the buildings still contain many of the relics of their former life, including furniture, sinks and obsolete medical equipment.
Glenwood Power Plant (Yonkers)
As New York began a concerted effort to electrify its urban rail system at the dawn of the 20th century, the Glenwood Power Plant was commissioned by the New York Central and Hudson River railroads along with its sister plant in the Bronx. The plant ran strong until 1936, when New York Central Railroad stopped producing electricity, opting to purchase it from more efficient outside providers.
The railroad sold the plant to New York’s Consolidated Edison utility, which used it to produce energy until 1963. After it was decommissioned, the massive boilers and turbines were removed and sold as scrap metal, while most of the remaining structure was abandoned to the ravages of time.
The crumbling main building features two rooms: the boiler room and the turbine hall. The boiler room has suffered the most damage over the years, with most of its boilers collapsed into piles of beams and bricks. The remnants of office furnishings litter the area, obscured by a thick film of mud and dust. The turbine hall has fared somewhat better, with its glass ceiling allowing light to filter into the massive space lined with four floors of walkways and staircases.
North of the main building sits a smaller substation where most of the plant’s offices as well as its locker rooms were located. If you’re confident of your footing, the roof’s substation offers impressive views of the plant’s campus and the nearby Hudson River.
That’s it for our list of the best abandoned places in NYC. If you enjoyed this article, read about interesting abandoned places in Jacksonville, Florida next.