October 17th Marks the Park's Fifth Anniversary

Roosevelt Island's Best Neighbors #1: Four Freedoms Park Conservancy

David Stone
A medley of supporters at the 2017 Sunset Garden Party
A medley of supporters at the 2017 Sunset Garden Party
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

March 17th, 1974, Louis Kahn, aged 73, died when hit with a heart attack in Penn Station. Although he carried his recently completed plans for FDR Four Freedoms Park with him at the time, it took nearly forty years and the relentless energies of William J. vanden Heuvel, a former United States ambassador, to get the job done. It was worth the effort, and Four Freedoms Park Conservancy uplifts the architectural excellence with meticulous maintenance and creativity in bringing visitors to Roosevelt Island.

Here's a little known fact. FDR Four Freedoms Park is not owned by the Conservancy nor by the usual suspects, RIOC or New York City. It's owned by the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

Gifted management by the Four Freedoms Park Conservancy, based in Manhattan, has maintained a magnificent tribute to an historic moment, stamping the tapered southern end of Roosevelt Island with a grace that makes them, after five years, our very best neighbor.

Small Full Circle

Undeveloped, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island waited nearly four decades for the Park.
Undeveloped, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island waited nearly four decades for the Park.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Journalist Tom Brokaw worked the podium as master of ceremonies on the Park's opening day, October 17th, 2012. He introduced former President Bill Clinton and Governor Andrew Cuomo.

Cuomo said, "New York became the laboratory of progressive democracy, and F.D.R. was the scientist creating formulas for a broad range of national problems and social ills."

Ambassador vanden Heuvel, he added, was a "juggernaut of determination" in getting the Park completed.

This year, in a ceremony looking back to its beginnings, the Conservancy honored Brokaw for his career at the annual Sunset Garden Party on June 14th.

Enjoying the mildest of summer evenings with Brokaw were, of course, vanden Heuvel along with Cuomo's mother Matilda and Honorary Chair of the Board of Directors Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr.

Speakers included charismatic Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul and folksy Brokaw himself.

But Between Ceremonies

In 2008, runners like me, bicyclists and strollers took the dirt road south.
In 2008, runners like me, bicyclists and strollers took the dirt road south.
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

What makes FDR Four Freedoms Park a gift to Roosevelt Island and its overseer an outstanding neighbor is how management has avoided pitfalls observers feared while creating a vibrant space where many come to meditate, some just soak in the urban quiet and others to play.

In his review for the New York Times, critic Michael Kimmelman wrote, "Preserving the site will be a challenge. The park is pristine to a fault. Policing graffiti artists and skateboarders must be weighed against the park’s freedom theme."

While welcoming hundreds of thousands of visitors over five years, for everything from somber strolls to kite flying to viewing Manhattanhenge, the Conservancy has avoided both threats without a heavy hand of restraint. Respect for the Park and its meaning remains untarnished.

At the time, Kimmelman also wrote, "The sober ruin of an adjacent 19th-century smallpox hospital, designed by James Renwick Jr., architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, is to become the park’s entry pavilion," an idea that we know now was not nearly that solid.

Renwick's design still stands, but barely, hoping for something like $24 million just to stabilize it so you and I can walk through. An "entry pavilion" seems decades away, if ever.

Conclusion

Tom Brokaw with honored guests, Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Matilda Cuomo
Tom Brokaw with honored guests, Mrs. Franklin Delano Roosevelt Jr., Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Matilda Cuomo
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

Some locals lamented the loss of wild space when the Park was finally under construction. Some still do, but I'm with Carolyn Maloney.

In 2011, I walked with her down the muddy slope of what was being transformed into the creation we see today. She'd participated in the laying of a time capsule, and I was covering as a reporter.

After the ceremony, we were allowed to visit the unfinished landscape to get a look at the newly installed FDR bust. Coincidentally, the Congress where Maloney had served for twenty years had gotten wrenched into gridlock with a Republican majority determined to halt a Democratic President.

"You must have a hard time enjoying your job, these days," I said.

Maloney didn't miss a beat.

"When I can help do something like this, I do," she said, raising her arms to embrace the excellence in the making.

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