Once home to an insane asylum, prisons, and a smallpox hospital, Roosevelt Island was originally called Hog Island and later Welfare Island before being renamed for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1971 (a decision that certainly helped make it seem a more palatable choice to those considering living there!). Only 2 miles long and 800 feet or less wide, this island, lying between Manhattan’s Midtown and Upper East Side and Queens, is owned by the city of New York but now has numerous rental buildings, one coop, and one condo (all landlease buildings, leasing the space from the city on a 99 year lease negotiated in 1969). Accessible via subway (the F line) but more famously by the Roosevelt Island tram, it is simultaneously very close to Manhattan and also a little isolated and remote. As I enjoy exploring a neighborhood by taking an unplanned walk (a dérive), I headed to Roosevelt Island this spring to see what living here might be like.
The Roosevelt Island Tramway was intended to be a temporary way to entice residents to the neighborhood during its residential development. Opened in 1976, it makes over 100 trips per day, between the hours of 6 AM and 2 AM (every 15 minutes most of the day, but continuously during rush hours). Although not operated by the MTA, it uses the MetroCard and offers free transfers to the MTA system.
When on the tram, you can’t help to imagine what it would like if the tram were to stop mid-journey (or something worse, thanks to the 2002 Spider Man film!). There has never been a Green Goblin attack, or anything similar, but the tram has been stuck before. The worst instance of this was in 2006 when two trams were stopped midair for seven hours due to an electrical outage. Rescue baskets were sent to the trams, but each could hold only 15 people, so the evacuation of the trams took a very long time. Following an extensive 2010 overhaul, there have been no similar incidents on the trams.
The large (unphotogenic) construction site just south of the tram is the new Cornell University Tech Campus, due to open in 2017.
Walking along the river, cherry trees blossom and frame a view west to Sutton Place in midtown Manhattan.
It is impossible to miss the creepy ruins of the old Smallpox Hospital on the way to the Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. Opened in 1854, and closed a century later, the Gothic Revival building fell into disrepair. Now added to the National Register of Historic Places, a stabilization project is underway and it will one day be open to the public (hopefully only in daylight hours).
Opened in 2012, the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park celebrates the former president as well as his famous 1941 speech about freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Designed by the renowned architect Louis Kahn, it is a beautiful and spare park with spectacular views of Manhattan, including a direct view of the United Nations.
Heading back north and past the tram station, Roosevelt’s Island Main Street unfolds.
Built in 1798, Blackwell House is the sixth oldest surviving home in New York City.
1888 Chapel of the Good Shepherd, on the National Register of Historic Places.
There is a free red bus around the island, and it was easy to return via the F subway, one stop to Lexington and 63rd.
As of the 2010 U.S. Census, Roosevelt Island had a population of 11,661. Roosevelt Island has relatively affordable rents and prices compared to midtown Manhattan, and the buildings are largely full-service buildings with amenities such as swimming pools and gyms. Many apartments feature the kind of spectacular view of Manhattan found in red-hot Long Island City, Queens. I found the small town atmosphere of Roosevelt Island to be very unique. Along Main Street was everything a person would need – an apartment, groceries, a library, public school, and so on. Just a few hundred feet from midtown Manhattan, it felt like being in a small town anywhere in the United States. Less distant in terms of a commute from central Manhattan than many parts of the five boroughs, it still feels a world away – the skyscrapers of Manhattan a bit like a mirage just across the East River.