Elasticity Fails

If Change is hard, and it is, it's harder on Roosevelt Island. But why?

David Stone
If Change is hard, and it is, it's harder on Roosevelt Island. But why?

Something I learned while monumentally screwing up my first management job is that most people hate change. Change even annoys when it tries to shuffle bad situations into good. Why is it so much more difficult on Roosevelt Island?


Roosevelt Island: "...best when none of you were here..."

"Personally I found the island best when none of you were here, BUT no halting the wheels of progress..." a reader of our article about manners wrote. She shot that arrow at "newcomers (recent and not so recent)," that is, those of us who weren't lucky enough to find a home in one of the first WIRE buildings: Westview, Island House, Rivercross or Eastview (now Roosevelt Landings).

My immediate, checked reaction was to fire something back about the snobbery of the sclerotic first arrivals, their failure to sustain Roosevelt Island's promise of inclusion, but I refused to allow my fingers to touch the keyboard and waited until morning to read her comment again.

Refreshed, I found that I was now sympathetic. Somewhat sympathetic, anyway.

By the time I swung my feet out of bed, I saw her unhappiness paralleling what developed for me in my twenty-five years downhill in Manhattan Park.

Landing In a Paradise of Sorts

When the first Roosevelt Islanders turned keys in virgin apartment doors, it must have taken a while to shake off the contrast.

Just across the East River, Manhattan's biggest island was a mismanaged wreck.

It was the year of Ford to City: Drop Dead as New York's finances staggered near bankruptcy. It seems unimaginable now, but default was averted only because the Teachers Union agreed to buy enough bonds to keep a city of 7 million solvent.

The city was tilting toward chaos with crumbling inner city neighborhoods, muggings and rapes in Central Park and subways smeared with graffiti.

Moving to tranquil, virtually crime free Roosevelt Island must have felt like finding your way out of earthly hell.

With chaos and crisis building around them, Mayor John Lindsay's administration held off hungry real estate developers eager to pave the place from top to bottom and initiated a planned community that stabilized the middle class in affordable housing in a cultural mix that avoided the built in segregation hobbling New York's established neighborhoods.

The Mitchell-Lama program, passed into State law in 1955, powered the development.

Change: Trellis, once Roosevelt Island unofficial town hall, reopened after three years as Nisi.
Change: Trellis, once Roosevelt Island unofficial town hall, reopened after three years as Nisi.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

And Watching the Clouds Gather

Stories told by Roosevelt Island's pioneers describe a community unlike any other in New York, more like a small town where everyone knew and helped everyone else.

Nearly everyone depended on the Tram, which opened a year later. Silently floating over the water, you were likely to be joined by familiar faces with stories to share. Islanders set up their own library on the first floor of Westview.

Subway service was a decade away. Quiet and isolation masked easy access to a vibrant, if messy city.

More than ten years passed before the first market rate housing opened its doors on Roosevelt Island. Signing a lease with RIOC, which had come on board to manage things, Manhattan Park mimicked newer city construction.

It looked different from the utilitarian structures that formed an urban canyon along Main Street. The design was more airy. Relaxed views opened to the river. Buildings were set back behind a landscaped park.

Local reaction was immediate, although this phase of Northtown had always been in the plan. The original pioneers hated Manhattan Park or, as it was called, Snobs Knob.

Those of us first arriving on Roosevelt Island by way of Manhattan Park seldom understood the resistance. We were tone deaf to the relative utopia we unsettled. The locals seemed a little like yokels, entitled yokels.

Rain All Through the Future

Over the next decade, Manhattan Park proved to be just what those who first took a chance by moving here must have feared: a heavy-footed intrusion changing Roosevelt Island permanently.

It was irrevocable. Traffic destroyed the Z-brick design so distinctive on the roads and walkways. Unfamiliar faces became more numerous. A sort of commuter culture brought in newcomers who never developed connections to the community, coming and going without sticking.

Southtown went up. The Octagon spread bulky wings. Park space shrank. Ungainly though it was, the abandoned nurses' residence squatting at the south end of the WIRE enclave sadly came down.

Crowded F Trains arrived, pushing out the Q where you always had a seat. And the Tram, poorly maintained, dangled at risk of being dismantled and carted away. Residents were routinely reminded by RIOC that the Tram was never meant to be permanent, only a fill in until the subway opened.

And that it, along with the free red buses, was a financial sinkhole that could not be sustained.

Financial aid from Albany shrank under Governor Mario Cuomo under the fiction that, less than half-developed, Roosevelt Island was expected to be sufficient.

Roosevelt Island's first settlers were predictably alarmed and dismayed. It wasn't just a drip, drip, drip of unwelcome transition. It was a thud, thud, thud, and no amount of protest would stop it.

Tomorrow Today

Small wonder that our reader wrote that she "...found the island best when none of you were here." 

Undoubtedly, it was, and had any of us been there, we'd probably agree.

But change is inevitable and accelerated in a city with New York's complex dynamics. Neighborhoods are reshaped overnight. Spanish Harlem disappeared, and what's become of Hudson Yards is nothing short of revolution.

It isn't always pretty or, honestly, ever pretty.

But here's where it gets sticky for us.

Where was Roosevelt Island's leadership?

Everything that occurred in the building out of Roosevelt Island was in the Master Plan form Day One. Given that the rest of Northtown as well as Southtown were inevitable, why were we so unprepared to build a community alongside the expected changes?

Cornell Tech is the only substantial new piece between the East River's channels, and ironically, outreach by the school's leaders is arguably the most unifying force swung our way in twenty years.

Communities will aways have conflicting forces that push and pull to shape a result. Historic preservation stands firm against relentless renewal. Eager real estate developers square off against community stabilization.

It's always happened, and it always will.

But it doesn't have to be a "them against us" field of tensions as it is on Roosevelt Island.

The leadership vacuum begins with RIOC, which has never pierced the perception of being run by relatively disinterested outsiders, and extends like a virus through hardened caucuses with constricted goals.

The Main Street WIRE, which had the next best chance to unify the community, squandered it instead, undermining the Common Council by conniving to let the Maple Tree Group take over and politically advantageous spreading half-truths and fictions, a deep misuse of the responsibility it seized as the local source of news and information.

Our profound lack of leadership leaves us with at least three distinct, separated communities on an island small enough to function effectively as one. 

So, I understand why someone who went to sleep in Rivercross in 1975 is troubled to wake up today in a neighborhood flooded with strangers or why newcomers, here for only twenty-five years, might resent being cast as an imposition on anyone's nostalgic utopia.

But where do we go from here?

We can take for granted that RIOC will not step up to leadership and that RIRA is a lost cause.

It seems to me that Cornell alone has demonstrated the flexibility and awareness to lead.

Over the years, the population south of the Queensborough Bridge will pop. Our best hope is that the university continues its investment in us and helps us understand what we can be as a community united.

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