Publication of the Roosevelt Island Council of Organizations

Profiles, a 1995 Newspaper Documents A Different Roosevelt Island

Updated 5 weeks ago David Stone
Profiles, a 1995 Newspaper Documents A Different Roosevelt Island
© David Stone / Roosevelt Island Daily

No one here has to be told that Roosevelt Island is a unique kind of place, always activist, separate but also part of Manhattan, but a look through Profiles, a publication from 1995, suggests that periods of Island development carried with them a one of a kind flavor all their own. This one reflects a state of mind before the crowning of Jerome Blue as RIOC president did a number on local identity.

The Roosevelt Island Council of Organization's Profiles - Featuring: Our Volunteers, Artists, Events, Activities, & Other Extraordinary Aspects of Roosevelt Island misidentifies itself as a "free press newspaper." The Main Street WIRE had that category locked up and had bumped off more than one challenger already.

Profiles is more like a promotional resource aiding its members in identifying themselves to the community.

In context, Jean Lerman, appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo to be RIOC's first leader had just departed 591 Main Street. A politician by profession - she previously held a State Assembly position in a district similar to Rebecca Seawright's - Lerman dealt with a fair amount of controversy as predictable early battles emerged between pioneer residents and unelected government.

Lerman left office when George Pataki defeated Cuomo's reelection bid and took office early in 1995.

Wrestling with operating deficits as Cuomo initiated a first phase of ending state subsidies for maintaining Roosevelt Island, Lerman floated cost-saving ideas of reducing Tram hours or of asking riders to pay for jaunts on the Red Buses, initially paid for by Manhattan Park to encourage renters but already a local entitlement.

In what in retrospect feels like it happened in another universe, as a Common Council Vice-President - we had several under President David Kraut, then - I was given an unfiltered look at the State agency's books.

The Tram and especially the buses, they revealed, were bleeding red ink, draining RIOC to the tune of around a million bucks a year.

But the Tram was as much an icon then, maybe more so, as it is now. To many, the red cabins and the 2 mile long island were inseparable. Maybe they had an intuition about how unreliable subway service would continue to be and were inspired to save the resource.

Residents were furious at the suggestion of reductions. Eventually, we were forced to cough up a dime for a bus ride, which slowed the bleeding and lasted, including an increase to a quarter, for twenty years.

That and concerns, still unresolved, about difficulties faced by Main Street businesses, were about the worst of it, pre-Jerry Blue.

Volunteerism and art were a big part of how the community defined itself as organizations matured and/or set the stage for today's successful institutions.

Much of Profiles concerns itself with art, roughly five years before RIVAA stepped up with its dreams of birthing an Island of Art.

Ramon Ocampo's wildlife illustrations occupy most of the front and back pages, and  photographer Al Burley's pictures, including individuals as diverse and Charles Rangel and Betty Ford, fill up page 3.

And, I should add, there's a splash of news too, a peculiar less than quarter-page bit about the death of Lord David Pitt, "one fo the first blacks in England's House of Lords." No apparent connection to Roosevelt Island, but for some reason it won out in a contest for space with the start of O. J. Simpson's murder trial and the Tokyo subway bombing.

Nobody's mad at RIOC about anything. Mostly, we were all too busy building a community as volunteers. 

In one example that led to success, the Roosevelt Island Community Literary Associates is reported to be working hard to get adopted by the New York Public Library. "Fierce budget cutting" by the Giuliani administration held things up, but even that miserable mayor couldn't strangle community activism forever.

In the days before Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance won the community's embrace with a wide variety of classes and seasonal performances, there was the Loaves and Fishes Theatre Company, led by Charles Dumas. Loaves and Fishes, Dumas wrote, "had its beginning almost ten years ago in the basement of Good Shepherd Chapel." There were no classes, but a schedule of ambitious shows were on tap through the 94-95 season. 

And before Judy Berdy and the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, there was Friends of the Roosevelt Island Landmarks. In 1995, they were "focusing on the stabilization and preservation of the Octagon and the Renwick Ruin." As Berdy will tell you, twice if necessary, there's no such thing as "the Renwick Ruin." It's the Smallpox Hospital, designed by Renwick.

The Octagon, of course, was saved by commercial investment that converted the remains into an impressive lobby for a first class apartment complex.

There was bitter with the sweet.

"The Chamber of Commerce," which dissolved years ago, "proudly looks forward to serving the community for many years to come," wrote John Guerra. Good intentions aren't always enough.

Sixteen year old Island Kids, according to Ghila Krajzman, "has become a place for parents and caregivers to participate in a learning activity with their child and socialize with others." Happily, that mission continues today under new management.

The Roosevelt Island Youth Program, unaccountably crushed by RIOC earlier this year, was also a teenager. President Mike Babcock wrote, "The future of our agency is bright. The diversity and needs of the residents of Roosevelt Island create a special environment where creativity and change are possible."

Those were the days.

RIYP's Executive Director was Charles DeFino, who promised to never set foot on Roosevelt Island again after being unfairly toasted by RIOC.


It's likely no one then saw the cataclysms with which Jerome Blue's arrival would shake the Island, a shake up that gave life to the Maple Tree Group, its takeover of the Common Council and the RIOC Board and all the good and bad that came of that, all for another story.

For now, enjoy the stay in 1995 and the spirited community that was about to lose its innocence.


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