History That Binds a Community

More Than a Nesting Place for Technology: A Roosevelt Island of Art

David Stone
Is a new day dawning for Roosevelt Island?
Is a new day dawning for Roosevelt Island?
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

It may jar old timers, but our future as a community, if we hope to thrive, depends on drawing outsiders to Roosevelt Island and doing it every day. That means getting them to see us differently, as an easy to get to place where creative arts will thrill visitors.

The first thing we need to do is rid ourselves of the failed idea of busy retail shops lining Main Street. The corridor between Blackwell House and Capobianco Field succeeds only with services, food and beverages.

Dreams of hardware and stationery stores or of a shop catering to pets need to be recognized for what they are: dreams. Dreams that can't and won't come true.

Let's be honest. For more than five years, we've had one of the premier real estate companies in New York, one with every kind of connection and in-house talent, trying to fill up our painfully empty storefronts.

That Hudson has come up with quality operations, like Urgent Care, Wholesome Factory, Subway and the soon to open bubble tea, Onda Mexican restaurant and an as yet unnamed casual snack bar is, objectively, a set of achievements worth praise.

But all of these businesses draw on the same customer base. It's very limited.

(No, it's not 14,000 people. That's a number invented by the WIRE to help sell ads. And of the truer count of around 12,000, 10% live in Coler Hospital and group residences. Also unlikely to be steady customers are transients living short term in Octagon, Manhattan Park, Hudson Landings and Southtown.)

You can forget about Cornell Tech juicing Main Street retail. Campus population will remain under four figures for years to come, and even though the school has been a generous community partner, it's unrealistic to lean on it as a savior.

It won't happen because, look around, we haven't given the post grads and their business partners enough reasons to wander regularly up past the subway and the Tram. 

None of our current businesses draw significantly from off the Island, although we're surrounded by millions. That's not a fault. They aren't designed to. They serve our small community, and in every case, they do it very well.

We're blessed with what we have.

If we want more, that is, fewer empty storefronts and more traffic for the businesses we have, we need to change.

The Island of Art

Others may have great ideas we can consider, but our easiest and most likely way to bring people here is what it has been: art.

It's time to further empower The Island of Art, an existing concept that's grown from humble roots to touch all corners of Roosevelt Island with more to come.

Tad Sudol, Esther Piaskowski, Arline Jacoby and Gallery RIVAA

There have been times when it seemed like I couldn't walk down Main Street - or the Promenade! - without being accosted by Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association President Tad Sudol.

Sudol may have more ideas to pitch than he has pairs in his sock drawer. He vibrates with them.

In just over a year, RIVAA leadership has brought art from New Zealand, Romania, Norway, Sweden and other international locations while making the vibrant works of the group's own artists available in member and solo exhibits.

In partnership with RIOC, RIVAA has reimagined what a poured concrete parking facility might be and begun acquiring sculptures and installations that invigorate our parks. They've worked with Hudson to keep their main gallery lively and always evolving, and they've teamed up with the Octagon's management for a gallery that delights and surprises visitors as a lobby fixture.

Other Assets

When most of us think of art, we think pictures.

We need to broaden perceptions.

We have, on Roosevelt Island, a theatre and dance school and performance center that compares favorably to competition in Manhattan. On our southern tip, we have one of the most distinguished and irresistibly beautiful examples of landscape art in the world.

Less well-known are the energies we gain from RIOC and its art-loving President, Susan Rosenthal, our strong relationship with Hudson and the treasures of our newer neighbor, the Carter Burden Network. an organization so committed to the art of older adults it has its own lively gallery in Manhattan.

Imagine the Power of Art

If you doubt the power of art to get folks off their couches and across the East River, take a look at Chelsea's busy collection of galleries. With no subways nearby to deliver visitors and certainly no magic carpet ride like the Tram, Chelsea's galleries draw a steady stream of art lovers.

While it's true that smaller galleries are failing in the wake of increasing rents, online marketing and auctions, that can be to our advantage too. Lower than Manhattan rents and an easy to access location may appeal to enough of them to yield extended lifespans.

And we shouldn't stop at visual arts.

FDR Four Freedoms Park already draws international visitors who stroll and contemplate in the graceful pocket of peace inside a vigorous city. They supplement that with creative activities like this week's Manhattanhenge event.

Shouldn't Main Street be flirting with Four Freedoms?

Already solid in the core of the district is Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance, a school that counts a former Rockette along with card-carrying actors union members among its instructors and has sent grads to Broadway  and fame.

At least as important for drawing folks to Main Street are MST&DA's lineup of performances.

While seasonal class performances are thrilling with electrifying sparks that come close to professional theatre, live cabaret from the likes of Common Man Musicals, original works like John Curtis's 2016 On the Eve and staged readings of the classics lead by Russ Cusick promise visitors experiences that challenge Off Broadway.

And at a great, new venue one quick turn off Main Street.

Power increases when chemistry takes it swelling beyond limited, established boundaries.

We should be thinking about art as a gift we have in hand, one we can shape and empower to change how the rest of the universe sees Roosevelt Island.

Imagine, an Island of Art combined with the dynamics of one of the world's most exciting technology engines.

We can make it happen. We already have all the basic ingredients. What we need to do is stir that pot and get all the elements working together, complimenting each other.

Who knows what can happen?

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