A Roosevelt Island Visitors Guide
What’s missing is what we once had when the island was less densely populated and earned less publicity: a guide for visitors, showing them where they can find the historic sites, parks, playgrounds, food and views that make Roosevelt Island a location like no other.
Printed maps with highlights like those my wife and I were handed when we came as visitors the first time aren’t feasible or environmentally sound. So, what the Daily will offer is an online guide, accessible from our homepage, that is free and will be routinely updated.
Let’s get started.
Coming to Roosevelt Island
Whether arriving by Tram or subway, you set foot on Roosevelt Island at a poorly marked location with little to help you figure out where to go.
FDR Four Freedoms Park has invested in signs posted conveniently, but if your place of interest is anywhere else, you’re pretty much out of luck. That’s where this guide comes in.
A quick caution for those of you exiting the Tram: at peak periods, especially on weekends, Visitor Center signs mounted in giant flower post will come at you like roadside attractions in the Nevada wilderness. Ignore them.
Entering the Visitor Center, which is operated by the Historical Society and has the expected slant, before getting around the island is a lot like being forced to make a circuit through the gift shop before having a meal at Serendipity III or Tavern on the Green.
Why buy knickknacks, books or T-shirts before you get a feel for the place?
Besides, FDR Four Freedoms is an international attraction with a nifty gift shop all their own you’ll find more relevant.
Red Buses: You’ll see them picking up passengers at both the Tram and Subway. They are free. As commuter buses for local residents, they don’t offer the best experience for tourists. They are often crowded and, by design, visit only the residential complexes.
Where to go?
The Tram and the Roosevelt Island subway station are a short distance apart and offer similar choices. If you need a bite to eat, Riverwalk Bar & Grill, Fuji East and others are steps from the subway. Or you can follow Main Street into the center of town where takeout and sit-down meals are available.
More on those later, but your main choices are between going south to have a look at Cornell Tech’s game-changing new campus, two scenic parks filling the tip of the island or taking a walk north, like most of us who live here do, and seeing multiple historic landmarks and the exceptional community that’s grown up around them.
Whichever you chose, stick to the Manhattan side of our narrow island and appreciate the classic views all along the paved promenade.
If You Go South
Immediately past the Queensborough Bridge, which soars overhead without letting anyone exit, you find enough to fill an afternoon or more, starting with Cornell Tech. One caution: while the university remains under construction, food choice are few south of the subway.
While Cornell Tech remains under construction until 2017, your only way to travel to locations south of the bridge is by using the west promenade that takes you under the shade of cherry trees. Plentiful benches align the route along with views of Sutton Place and Turtle Bay, as Manhattan slopes down toward the United Nations, are as genteel as any remaining in the city.
- The campus under construction hints at the innovative merging of business, technology and invention that will be born in the summer of 2017. Making a giant step in architectural history, the residential passive house, the building nearest the bridge, will leap into the future as the largest of its kind in the world the day it opens. The Bloomberg and Bridge Buildings are groundbreaking in their own way. More on those as construction nears its finish and the campus opens for walk throughs.
- Southpoint Park, just below the campus is the site of Gustav and Ulla Kraitz child sculpture The Blue Dragon, located just inside the grounds. It’s also offers the most readily available public restroom facilities. The quiet park, with its winding trails and open fields, was recovered from ruined structures that made the area unsafe for decades. Two historic landmarks remain. Strecker Memorial Lab on the Queens side is now an MTA power conversion substation. Larger and more comely are the ruins of the abandoned Smallpox Hospital, partly designed by James Renwick. It’s haunting Neo Gothic look belies a lack of true historical significance. At issue currently is the ruins’ instability, which restricts visitors to no more than a partial, somewhat distant view, and the steep cost of doing anything about it.
- The open spaces of Southpoint flow gently into the serene landscape of FDR Four Freedoms Park. Designed by legendary architect Louis I. Kahn, the park memorializes both President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his historic Four Freedoms Speech. As his 1941 State of the Union Speech, Roosevelt described the fundamental freedoms all people deserved: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. A meadow, lined with trees, tapers down to a bust of Roosevelt, beyond which the park’s themes are carved in giant blocks of stone. The views on all sides are spectacular. Making the space more accessible, the conservancy responsible for maintaining the park sponsors year round activities, like Kite Flight, scheduled to coordinate with International Peace Day in September and, on the lawn, the most scenic health and wellness programs hosted anywhere.
While construction continues at Cornell, limiting roadway use, walking to and from these locations is usually your only options. Set aside at least a couple of hours to see everything, more if you want to enjoy walking the parks or sitting to appreciate Manhattan views from the calmer confines of Roosevelt Island.
If You Go North
For those of us who live on Roosevelt Island, the real action is from the Tram north to Lighthouse Park. This is where all the restaurants and shops are found and most of the historic sites.
Unfortunately and at least partly due to poor decisions in the planned community design, not enough is made of the historic sites available along Main Street and beyond. We will do what we can to correct that, here.
North of the subway and Southtown’s last building you see Roosevelt Island’s traditional community center. The first buildings are all here, grounded alongside historic sites on Main Street.
The mix can feel uncomfortable, a sense of designs not quite fitting together. You will also notice that the Main Street Plan turns everything inside out and incompatible with the logical environment.
You do have a choice here. You can take the promenade on the Manhattan side all the way to the tip of the island, but we recommend saving that for a casual return trip.
- The first building you will see on your right as you walk up Main is the historic Blackwell House. Built in 1796, it’s New York City’s sixth oldest house. Although the Roosevelt Island Historical Society was awarded a contract to put the building back into use five years ago, it remains unavailable to visitors. But if you keep in mind that what you see from Main Street is the rear of the place (Inside out, remember?), you can stroll around to the front and appreciate the graceful beauty of its construction, facing Ravenswood where a massive and ungainly power plant occupies the view. Imagine relaxing on the long porch here, of an evening before the Civil War, as the woods across the river deepen and darken into night.
- With the residential buildings, Rivercross on your left, massive Roosevelt Landings (originally, Eastview) on your right, you see what’s left of complexes built for a planned, mixed income community, one now slowly being transformed with market rate rentals and condos, leaving us with a lesser balance of subsidized middle and lower income residents.
- Except for Good Shepherd Plaza, straight ahead past Rivercross, buildings are cramped together, cutting a harsh, unappealing canyon above the street. Significantly, the inside out composition strains to erase the East River on either side. For incomprehensible reasons, planners decided to downplay the essence of being on an island, a very narrow one at that.
- The theme continues as you walk into Good Shepherd Plaza. Consistent with the strange theme for Main Street, what you see is the back of the historic church, once Episcopalian but now managed by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp. for various community purposes. RIOC has invested significantly in restoring and updating the structure. Walk around to have a look at what was intended to be the main entrance. It resembles the home of a country congregation, although it was built in 1888 to serve social outcasts sent to live in the almshouses and lunatic asylum on what was then Welfare Island.
- Efforts have been underway for years to upgrade street level businesses. A successful exception is Trellis, a diner parked on the parameter of Good Shepherd Plaza, currently undergoing renovations that will allow its rebirth as Nisi, a Greek restaurant a notch higher on the scale than its predecessor. Until the reopening, anyone needing a meal can find takeout at Wholesome Factory across Main Street and at a Subway on the first floor below Rivercross. Main Street Sweets, Nisi’s neighbor offers fresh snacks and coffee, for a quick, relaxing break.
- Beyond Good Shepherd Plaza, Island House and Westview complete the original set of residential buildings while Roosevelt Landings fills the east side, providing home for street level shops, public safety and the local public library. All were designed to provide homes for a robust middle class seasoned with lower income residents, all supported by government funding. With the demographics now changing rapidly, they offer a reminder of Mid-Twentieth Century idealism and hope for saving a neighborhood from real estate developers.
- Main Street opens ahead with less confining and varied development. A public school, a ramp leading up the Roosevelt Island Bridge and a huge parking garage, Motorgate, dominate until Manhattan Park opens with a lightly landscaped park connecting its buildings. It’s the first complex to defy the idea of inhibiting river access. An inviting plaza and lawn welcome visitors to open views of Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and benches align the waterfront.
- Until you reach the Octagon, the walk is a hodgepodge of conflicting elements. A very well kept athletic field is matched by a trash laden dumping area behind the AVAC building and an area that the city fire department has chosen to convert into a ugly parking area for unused, bulky vehicles. Try to ignore the city managed areas since they show little regard for community aesthetics. On the other side, though, there’s a busy community garden, a softball diamond and active, outdoor tennis courts.
- The Octagon’s developers executed a near miracle when they salvaged what was left of the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, built way back in 1834 but abandoned for decades. Around the restored five-story rotunda, a complex of apartments extends in two directions. If you’re unobtrusive — it’s a private residential building — you can get a look at the restored lobby from inside. There is also a small art gallery that usually offers the work of local artists.
- Between here and Lighthouse Park is Roosevelt Island’s only remaining component of the Welfare Island days, Bird S. Coler Hospital, a long term care facility that is part of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. While it provides a placid setting for residents with limited mobility, there is also concern that it isolates them from a richer urban experience. It is similarly difficult to reach for visitors, requiring a considerable bus ride with unpredictable service.
- Pass the hospital by walking up the East Promenade through the parking lot until you enter Lighthouse Park. Rolling, shady meadows lead to the 1872 lighthouse, which reflected history with name changes from Blackwell to Welfare to Roosevelt Island during its lifetime. Out of service since around 1940, the lighthouse’s supervising architect was James Renwick, better known for St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. Its actual construction involves some controversy, including claims that it was built by an inmate from the Lunatic Asylum. Nevertheless, it presides over Roosevelt Island’s northernmost tip where it juts into Hell Gate. Although the passage where East River tides conflict with those from the Harlem River and Long Island Sound is hazardous for navigators, its name was actually drawn from the Dutch phrase for “bright strait” or “clear opening” and originally applied to the length of the East River. Across the blending currents, you see, from right to left, Astoria in Queens, Wards and Randall’s Islands, the Hell Gate and Robert F. Kennedy (formerly, the Triborough) Bridges, Harlem and Yorkville in Manhattan. At river’s edge in Yorkville is Carl Schurz Park, within which sits Gracie Mansion, the official home of New York City’s mayor.
- After Lighthouse Park, the West Promenade is a low-key stroll past the areas you saw earlier along Main Street. You may find it hard to imagine why the backsides of the apartment complexes are all that are exposed to Manhattan and how difficult it is to find your way back to Main Street for something to eat or just a second look. There are no signs, even to indicate historic sites or to let visitors know that services are available. You get a sense of two different worlds with only minimal connections between them.
- As a last stop before you decide between subway of Tram for your return trip, we suggest spending some time relaxing on the Meditation Steps, which you find facing the East River like bleachers as the Promenade curls back toward Main Street after Rivercross. Recently rebuilt to extend its lifespan, the one of a kind structure has been a favorite place of contemplation, sunbathing and meeting with friends since the community began. If you like, grab a beverage or some food from one of several businesses close by, or sit calmly and watch a sunset fall over Manhattan.
Comments and suggestions that help others appreciate their visits here are welcome below. Regular updates will keep this page fresh.
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