Leonard Quart: East River's walkable island

Friday November 30, 2012


Roosevelt Island, which is part of Manhattan, is about two miles long and a very narrow 800 feet wide at maximum, and lies between Manhattan to its west and Queens to its east. It was known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973, and once housed a smallpox hospital designed by the famous 19th century architect James Renwick Jr. (the hospital’s Gothic ruins have been preserved and landmarked) and a prison -- Welfare Peni tentiary -- and still houses the first public hospital in the U.S., Coler/Goldwater, built in 1939 and devoted to chronic diseases.

Owned by the city, the island was leased to the New York State’s Urban Develop ment Corporation for 99 years in 1969 to be developed as a middle-income enclave, subsidized by the Mitchell-Lama program. Though some of the housing is moving towards privatization and to more expensive rents (there is also some luxury housing), most of the apartments are being rented far below market rates. The island’s population is growing as new housing is being built and planned; it could reach 16,000 by the end of the decade.


Recently, I decided to explore the island with a friend from the southern to the northern tip. We took the tram and the five-minute ride reminded me why when I went there with my daughter many years ago I took so much pleasure in the trip. The tram provided an intimate view of the dynamic, ever-vital city as it swooped over Manhattan’s Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, apartment towers from various eras, gray hospital structures, FDR Drive’s incessant flow of cars and a glistening, churning East River.

Having arrived at the Island, we decided to first walk down to its southern tip to take a look at The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, one of the final designs of architect Louis I. Kahn, now opening [open] after years of delays. Twin allées of linden trees now flank the triangular four-acre plot, drawing the eye to a dramatic bronze bust of FDR by sculptor Jo Davidson. The sculpture is inserted in a stone alcove, and FDR’s Four Free doms speech (his 1941 State of the Union address) has been carved on the opposite side. From the park one can see the U.N., which FDR played a prime role in establishing.

However, Roosevelt Island is not about the monumental. It’s a low-crime island with an economically and racially di verse population. It is en hanced by a few large mounds of wild flowers, waterfront parks, ball fields and green plantings throughout. One side of the island’s promenade looks out at Man hattan’s skyline -- clearly its most striking feature (especially the night view of an illuminated city beckoning with possibility) -- the other on the new glass residential towers dominating the gentrified and developing Long Island City (Queens) waterfront.

The island’s residential areas are divided into two sections: Northtown, which is older, and Southtown which contains luxury full-service, 16-story buildings housing a number of the staff members of Upper East Side hospitals. The Southtown buildings are architecturally more distinctive, and they have attracted to an island that offers few places to eat a Starbucks, a Duane Reade and newer eating establishments such as Nonno’s Focacceria and Fuji East which have outdoor tables.

Northtown has never worked for me. Its Main Street, a self-conscious attempt to create the semblance of a narrow village street, is lined with cheaply-built buildings and appears drab and lifeless. Although I’ve read that there is going to be an attempt to transform it, at present there are too many vacant and non-descript shops. Main Street should be bursting with people and activity, but no sign of that exists yet.

We did walk from North town to the landmarked, Gothic-style lighthouse on the island’s northern tip. Standing there one can see flocks of gulls flying towards the Triborough Bridge in the distance. It’s one of those rare N.Y. spots that perfectly serve those who crave solitude and silence. As my friend said: "The small light tower with its views of Manhattan, Queens and Randall’s Island mesmerizes me. It can’t get better than that."


But I am a visitor not an inhabitant. When I asked a retired public relations man about his experience living on the island for 33 years, his response was extremely positive. He said he loved its physical openness, the purity of its light, and how quiet and natural it was compared to Man hattan. He also liked the fact that it was more racially and economically mixed than the Upper East Side, the neighborhood in which he previously resided. I don’t know if his perspective is shared by most of Roosevelt Island’s inhabitants. But what he likes about the island seems right -- they are its prime virtues.

The island is on the cusp of major changes. Cornell Uni versity is building a two-million-square-foot technology campus in conjunction with Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, on its southern tip. The plan is that the first building, an academic hub and a residential building, won’t be finished until 2017. The rest of the campus is scheduled for completion in 2037. When done, it will no longer be the same island. But that’s all in the future. For the present, though I might find Roosevelt Island somewhat arid, its residents seem to find it a pleasant place to live.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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