I took a walking tour of Roosevelt Island with the American Museum of Natural History today. The island is located right off the Upper East Side and is one of the many islands in the New York County area. Roosevelt Island has had its share of problems living there in the past.
Many articles had been written about the island in the 80’s with lack of good housing, lack of stores, the tram not working and not much to do on the island. This has changed like the rest of the city in the last 20 years. There has been so much development and new housing plus on top of the tram, you do have a subway stop in a renovated station. The nice part about the tram is that you can use your subway card to ride it and what a view!
I took the F Train over that morning to meet the rest of the group. I toured with the same tour guide who lead us through Inwood two years ago. Unfortunately his get up and go is not there much these days and he looked like he packed on about 25 pounds since the last tour. Still we took a geological tour of the island so I got to see the island in its developed stages as well as the modern stage.
Walking around Roosevelt Island only takes about an hour (or two if you want to just relax and take your time). We started our tour outside the Roosevelt Island Historical Society Center Kiosk on West Road. Here we meet the head of the Historical Society and were invited to visit later on after the tour.
The history of Roosevelt Island is interesting. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Island was originally called Minnahannock by the Native Americans and Varkins Island by the Dutch settlers. The island was acquired by the Blackwell family in the late 1600’s, who renamed the land Blackwell island. The Blackwells lived on and farmed it before selling it to the City of New York in 1828 for $30,000.
In the 19th century, the island was used by the City for institutional facilities, including the Workhouse Penitentiary, Lunatic Asylum, City Hospital and City Home and given the name Welfare Island in 1921. These institutions gradually being relocated to areas more easily accessible to public transportation.
In 1969, this two-mile island was lease to the State of New York for 99 years. Under New York State’s Urban Development Corporation, Welfare Island became a beacon for the affordable housing movement within the city. Construction of the island community was completed in 1975 with four housing developments. In 1973, the island was renamed Franklin Delano Roosevelt island.
Today, Roosevelt Island has a small town feel with approximately 20 buildings and 14,000 residents. The island is home to six landmarked structures and proudly houses Four Freedoms Park, one of the original visions for the island.
(Judith Berdy, President Roosevelt Island Visitor Center)
Our first part of the tour was visiting the new Cornell Tech campus on the southern part of the island. This new complex of four buildings is the wave of our university’s urban campus to soon be joined by a new hotel and another tech building. The area has been replanted and a new lawn and gardens has been built on a waste deposit site. Its hard to believe that it is built on a trash mound. The tour guide explained that this is all reclaimed land. The campus is beautifully set on the island and is located right near the tram and subway station. I got to tour the Bloomberg Building and walk through their new restaurant.
Past the Cornell campus is South Point Park and the Small Pox Hospital, which is currently laying in ruins. The city is now refurbishing the building but it will never be reopened as a fire did damage to all of the building. It was behind scaffolding and was not much to look at except for the architecture itself.
The Smallpox Hospital is a Gothic Revival structure designed by American architect James Renwich Jr. and opened to the public on December 18, 1856. It was the first hospital in the country dedicated to treating smallpox, a highly contagious and deadly viral disease.
The original footprint of the Smallpox Hospital was the rectangle central bay, which measured roughly 100 feet by 40 feet and was three stories in height. The building was constructed of granite quarried on the island and was built by prison labor. In 1875, the hospital was renamed Riverside Hospital and in 1886, the building was converted to a nursing school called the Home for the Nurses of the Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School. The northern and southern wings were completed in the early 1900’s in order to provide additional space for classrooms, laboratories and dormitories.
In the 1950’s, the nursing school closed and the building was abandoned. It was stripped of floors, windows and stairwells. The Gothic ruin has been empty ever since. What exists today is largely its shell.
(Roosevelt Island Historical Society at http://www.TheRuin.org)
After the picture taking at the hospital, it was on to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. It is amazing park located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island with the most fantastic views of the City. On this clear sunny day, I could see all the way downtown. It was nice to just sit on the steps and just look out on this sunny day.
This is where the tour ended with our guide. I swear the guy looked exhausted and we had only walked the southern part of the island. Our group went on their way while I decided to see the rest of the park and walk the entire island. I started with walking the park.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Points Freedom Park is the first memorial dedicated to the president in his home state of New York. Located at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island in New York City. It is the last work of Louis I. Kahn, an iconic architect of the 20th century. The memorial, which opened to the public in October 2012, celebrates the four freedoms, as pronounced in President Roosevelt’s famous January 6, 1941 State of the Union address: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
(Park’s Mission: As a steward of this civic space, Four Freedoms Park Conservancy advances President Roosevelt’s legacy and inspires, educates and engages the public in the ideals of the four freedoms. The Conservancy does this by:
*safeguarding the memorial as a space for inspired use.
*fostering community and understanding.
*igniting conversation about human rights and freedoms today.
The park is built on landfilling from on-island demolition and this extended the island on the southern part.
(New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation Society).
From the park, I walked the path around the exterior of the entire island taking in the view of the coast of Queens. The shore line of Queens is slowly changing too. New apartment buildings are going up in Astoria and Long Island City not to mention the coastline of Brooklyn as well. Much of this is built around parks that line the East River. This is not our parent’s outer borough.
The pathway around the island had its twists and turns around the many parks and housing complexes. Some of these you could tell were built back in the 80’s and were the housing developments that were bitched about in New York Magazine so many years ago. Now these apartments have become desirable and have been spruced up. They are surrounded with newer, modern buildings that are attracting new younger residents.
The pathway with its breezy views attract the island joggers and fisherman. It turned out to be a 81 degree day and everyone was out enjoying the unseasonable warm weather. The leaves were just starting to change colors so there was a new view in the parks on the island and in the parks across the river.
The east part of the pathway on the island took me to Lighthouse Park on the northern tip of the island. This was the park I had seen a few weeks earlier when visiting Carl Schulz Park by Gracie Mansion. The lighthouse was built in 1872 by inmates from the penitentiary with stones from the island and it was designed by the architect who designed the Smallpox Hospital.
The lighthouse was built to guide ships through the treacherous waters of the East River and Hellgate. Now decommissioned, the park is a perfect place for picture taking and for picnicking. It has the nicest views of the Upper East Side and Randalls-Wards island to the north. It really is a nice place to take pictures or just relax, sit and enjoy the breezes. It was funny to now see the people from across the river. They seemed so much smaller.
The northern part of the island is dominated by the Coler Rehabilitation Center and many of the patients were out and about on the pathways with their families enjoying the warm weather. Be careful when walking the western part of the island as you could be nipped by a passing wheelchair.
Passing the hospital is the Octagon Apartments. The front of the building is the original Octagon building that was part of the Lunatic Asylum was built in 1834. This is where Nellie Bly wrote “Ten Days in a Nuthouse”, a famous piece describing the conditions in the building. Now it is a luxury eco-friendly apartment building. The parks next door to it have the nicest playground and a fantastic view of the Upper East Side.
Other newer apartment buildings line this part of the island of which have views anyone would envy. If you are going to live in New York City and want a view, this is the place to go.
The nicest part of the walk was the water sculptures of Tom Otterness entitled “The Management of Money & Real Estate”, which are two cute looking sculptures that depict the combination of money and real estate and how they affect one another. You could see this when each one of the sculptures were dunked in the water. You have to take time out and really look at these. It is really reflective of an island where mixed income seems to work.
As I rounded the Promenade, I had to stop for some lunch. There are not too many restaurants on the island but the ones who are there look pretty good. I ate at Piccolo Trattoria at 455 Main Street (See review on TripAdvisor) for a slice of pizza. This is the only place to get a slice of pizza on the island. The best part is the restaurant is really good. I had a slice of their Sicilian pizza ($2.50), which had just come out of the oven. It was really good. Their sauce is excellent and one slice is enough to fill you up. There service is friendly as well. I needed it as I was ready to walk the interior of the island.
After lunch, I walked in interior of the island and walked both side of the main street. There are some interesting restaurants, historical sites, a brand new school and the original Blackwell family house that was built in 1796 and sold in 1823. By the Motorgate building, there was a Farmer’s Market going on that afternoon.
It seems to be a great place to raise children. The public school PS/IS 217 looks like the type of school where the parents really support it. There are some interesting programs going on at the school and an active PTA. There is also an active theater down the road and a new library. There is a lot to do for a small neighborhood.
The tour of the island has a lot to do and see. There is a nice mix of historical buildings and brand new architecture that blends together. Everything mixes well and has created a very livable and vibrant neighborhood. There is a lot to do and I am not sure if the rest of Manhattan knows what they are missing.
I left the island on the Tram and the nice part is I did not need to use a special ticket. It was part of my subway card and all I needed to do is swipe the card and I was on my way.
What a view! I do not care how touristy anything is the view from the Tram on a clear sunny day is the best. You can see all the way up the island and you really see the beauty of the island of Manhattan. To see all the buildings and parks and the river I think of the people who see this view in pictures and never get to experience this and I am right here seeing it. If anything, you have to take the Tram once. Being crowded in is well worth it.
Dinner was at Dorrian’s Red Hand Restaurant on 1616 Second Avenue at 84th Street (See review on TripAdvisor), which I had mentioned before when walking through Yorkville. It is old-fashioned bar founded in 1960 and is a true Upper East Side ‘preppie’ bar. Everyone was pretty dressed up and the games were on. I ended up staying to watch the Michigan State versus Indiana game. I swear I had to calm down because it was a nail biter and I had to deal with rugby players constantly blocking the TV. That last minute touchdown really helped (that and the fact that Cornell beat Brown at Homecoming was nice). Michigan State won our Homecoming Game!
The food here is excellent. You have to try their UES Burger, which was a version of a ‘breakfast’ burger with bacon, artisan cheddar and a fried egg. The combination really worked and it had a salty savory flavor to it. The French Fries were perfectly cooked with lots of salt. Everything just worked. The place was packed with Syracuse fans watching their game so I was the only green and white in a sea of orange and blue. These games got close. I ended the win with a piece of warmed apple pie which hit the spot.
Back on the Q subway at 96th Street again to go home but on a warm night it was nice to walk around Second Avenue and look at everyone else eating outside and enjoying the warm evening. It was a great day in New York and my first trip to Roosevelt Island.
Go Green & Go Red!
Transportation to Roosevelt Island:
Take the tram (Cost of a subway ride with pass) between 59th and 60th Streets on Second Avenue in Manhattan or the F subway line.
Monday-Friday (Rush Hours): 7:00am-10:00am; 3:00pm-8:00pm
Hours do change so please call. The subway runs all day with hours changing depending on the time of day.
Things to do and see on Roosevelt Island:
Artist Tom Otterness sculptures “The Management of Money & Real Estate”
The Lighthouse in Lighthouse Park on the northern part of the Island
The Octagon (part of a housing complex now) in the middle part of the Island
The Chapel of the Good Shepard in the middle part of the Island
The Blackwell House in the middle part of the Island (under renovation)
The Strecker Laboratory on the southern part of the Island
The Smallpox Hospital on the southern part of the Island
Franklin D. Roosevelt Freedom Park on the southern part of the Island
Places to eat:
455 Main Street
Roosevelt Island, NY 10044
Phone: (212) 753-2300
Fax: (212) 753-2330
On the Manhattan side:
Dorrain’s Red Hand Restaurant
1616 Second Avenue at 84th Street
New York, NY 10028
Phone: (212) 772-6660