America might be a land of wide open spaces, but when it comes to its population, it’s undeniably urban. Over 70% of Americans live within greater metropolitan areas, and the number is growing every year. So, it’s no surprise that our cities are becoming more and more densely populated, and that there’s less and less space within cities to break new ground. In places like Chicago or Miami, it seems that every square inch of land has already been developed.

However, this isn’t always the case. Every once in a while, an empty patch will appear within a city’s limits. There are a variety of reasons – maybe a weird border anomaly places an uninhabited patch of land within the boundaries of the metropolis, or maybe the geography of the area makes for tough development. Either way, it can be both fascinating and disconcerting to realize that there are places that are urban, but nevertheless devoid of the usual hustle and bustle of city life. Here, we’ll be taking a look at four of those instances.

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The Brother Islands

New York City is no stranger to islands – from the big (like Manhattan and Staten Island) to the small (looking at you, Statue of Liberty). And, as you would expect from the nation’s biggest city, it manages to make use of nearly all of them. The harbor islands are National Park sites, Manhattan’s Roosevelt Island and the Bronx’s City Island are both heavily developed for residents, and even Riker’s Island in Queens finds use as a prison. Yet just off of Riker’s, within easy sight from three boroughs, lie the deserted and desolate Brother Islands (see map). Despite having a combined area larger than the easily accessible Ellis Island, there’s no way to get here, no inhabitants to speak of, and nothing but crumbling ruins.

Riverside Hospital North Brother Island crop

Ruins on North Brother Island. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps it’s better that the islands are abandoned: they have a dark history, most of it centered on the larger North Brother Island. In 1885, a quarantine hospital was located on the island to isolate victims of smallpox and other diseases from the general population. The hospital became the final resting place of thousands of sick patients, including the infamous “Typhoid Mary.” The hospital closed just before World War 2, where it temporarily housed homeless veterans. Then, in the 1950s, it became a sort of combination prison/rehab facility for heroin addicts, who were kept here against their will. By 1963, the facility had been left to decay.

As if that weren’t enough, the island was the site of the worst disaster in New York’s history prior to 9/11. In 1904, the General Slocum steamship caught fire and was beached here, killing over 1,000 passengers. Today, there are (in my opinion, perfectly reasonable) accounts of hauntings on the island, and the city bars anyone from visiting. However, there are talks to open the islands up to the public on a limited basis in the future. Not sure I’d take them up on that offer!

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New Orleans East

Today, locals refer to “New Orleans East” as any part of the city east of the industrial canal and north of the intracoastal waterway. However, the term originally applied to a very specific part of the Big Easy, one that now sits completely empty. In the 1970s, developers imagined a vast network of suburbs in the eastern reaches of the city (see map), similar to the upper-class communities outside of Washington, DC or Houston. The project was simply titled “New Orleans East.” Some progress was made throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, but by 1985 New Orleans found itself in a downward economic spiral caused by freefalling oil prices. Growth within the city stopped, and the demographics of the east quickly shifted to lower-income residents. Faced with an unprofitable idea, developers abandoned the East.

A view into the East today.

Today, very little evidence remains of this grand idea for a suburb. On I-10, drivers see an extravagant sign welcoming them to the East – it sits in the middle of the swamp, with no buildings in sight. Later, drivers pass under two abandoned overpasses, which were intended to connect to the arterial roads of the suburbs. Today, most of the area has been converted into the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge. Due to the original zoning plans for the East, the Refuge still lies entirely within New Orleans’ city limits, making it the largest urban refuge in the country. However, it’s really only accessible by foot or boat, and the only city dwellers you’ll see out here are alligators.

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Franklin Mountains

El Paso, Texas has a fairly compact city center; it hugs the border with Mexico, and doesn’t really sprawl like other urban cores (Los Angeles comes to mind). Despite this, El Paso has an absolutely massive land area – it stretches over 250 square miles. Combine these facts with El Paso’s mountainous desert terrain, and it’s a perfect candidate for empty spaces within its city limits. And boy, does it deliver, in the form of the massive Franklin Mountains State Park (see map).

Franklin Mountains. Note El Paso on all sides.

At over 35 square miles, Franklin Mountains State Park is the largest park in the country completely within a city’s limits. And we’re not talking about some neatly manicured, glorified garden a la Central Park either: the vast majority of the Franklin Mountains are completely undeveloped. There are parts of the park where you can be three miles from the nearest person or road, while still technically being in the city of El Paso. The highest peak in the park reaches nearly 7,200 feet, and offers stunning views of El Paso and its sister city of Juarez. Franklin Mountains State Park is popular with backpackers, mountain bikers, and rock climbers for both its remoteness and accessibility – it’s only 10 minutes from downtown, yet only reachable by a single road.

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The Farallon Islands

The final entry on this list is the result of a strange quirk in California’s jurisdictions. The Farallon Islands (see map) are located 26 miles off the coast of San Francisco in the Pacific. At first glance, they seem like remote rocks, unconnected in any way to the nearby metropolis. However, the islands are actually part of San Francisco County – that makes some sense, as the only access is from boats out of the city. Since the city and county of San Francisco are coterminous, this means that the Farallons are actually just as much a part of the city as the Golden Gate Bridge.

The islands aren’t much more than a series of jagged boulders jutting out from the icy waters, and they’re extremely treacherous. The submerged rocks create dangerous currents, and the waters surrounding the islands are home to the largest Great White Sharks in the world. The only people allowed on the islands are scientists from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, who stay in a small base situated on the most southeastern island. However, whale watching tours take tourists close enough to see this most remote part of San Francisco for themselves.

SE Farallon Island

The desolate Farallons. Via Wikimedia Commons.

One last thing makes the Farallon Islands stand out as a “no-go” zone within the city limits. During the Cold War, the government dumped huge amounts of nuclear waste in the waters near the islands. Today, there seems to be no trace of the dumping grounds, and scientists aren’t quite sure of the exact location of the waste. Might explain why the sharks out here grow so big, though!

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