As you know, I like to wander around Manhattan, checking out those things in plain view but so often overlooked. One of those places is Roosevelt Island. Its history is rich, starting with the Canarsie Indians, moving from the Dutch to the English. Back in those days, it was known as Blackwell Island named by the owner Robert Blackwell. It is officially part of Manhattan, but is actually leased to New York State. In 1828, the City purchased the Island from the Blackwell family for $32,000. Typical of the city, it was used as a penitentiary, lunatic asylum and as a smallpox hospital.
The Queensboro Bridge was constructed between 1900 and 1909, but never provided access to it. It was then called Welfare Island, and a bridge from Queens, now known as Roosevelt Island Bridge, was built to gain access to it. In 1971, the name was changed to Roosevelt Island and in 1976 the Tramway was built. In 1989, the F train began making stops to the Island. Today, the ferry makes a stop there too.
Recently Cornell built a technology center right beside the bridge and in 2012 the FDR Four Freedoms Park opened at the southern end of the Island. The north end contains mostly housing units. About 12,000 people live on the Island today and it is a popular neighborhood for nearby diplomats from the U.N. One of the more famous visitors was Nellie Bly who went undercover as a patient at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum and reported what happened there in the New York World as well as her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House.
It’s a very different place because there is so little car traffic there; when you look at Manhattan or Queens, it looks like a silent movie. It’s fun to visit, because when else could you ride an ariel tram in Manhattan? If you have a fear of heights like I do, don’t worry, the ride is fairly short, and you use a MetroCard to get on. When you get off the tram, you head south past Cornell University, past the crumbling remains of the hospital (which is listed as a landmark) and on toward the Four Freedoms Park. When you get to the very southern tip of the Island, you will have a fantastic view of midtown Manhattan and Long Island City, Queens. But even more amazing are the waters speeding past the Island on either side. The currents are especially strong here, as the East River rushes from the Long Island Sound and Harlem River toward the ocean. The river is actually an estuary connecting the same bodies of water.
You will also be treated to a sight that most don’t get to see, and that is the very acute bend in the East River. If you look at maps they never really prepare you for the fact that looking down river, you see the Williamsburg Bridge and not lower Manhattan like you would expect, because the river looking south makes a sharp right hand turn inward. On a sunny day it’s spectacular.
There is a fun way to get back to Rockaway, too. Simply walk (because surprisingly there are no CitiBikes on the Island) on the east side of the Island up to the Queensboro Bridge, and there you can grab the ferry, which will eventually deposit you at Pier 11. From there, switch ferries to the Rockaway ferry to get you the rest of the way home. That journey will give you a glimpse back in time when river travel was the only way to go, and the Indians, Dutch and English plied the local waters.
Usually we only see Roosevelt Island as a placeholder for the Queensboro Bridge, lit up at night and pretty. As real New Yorkers, you probably refer to the Queensboro Bridge by its Simon & Garfunkel name – the 59th Street Bridge, and will never call it by its current name – the Ed Koch Bridge. But Roosevelt Island is so much more than a bridge stanchion and definitely worth a visit. Hope one day you get to experience the sounds of silence of Roosevelt Island.