Bigger Than We Are Small

Roosevelt Island, New York's Big Little City

Updated 1 week ago David Stone
Rock slicing clean past neighborhoods.
Rock slicing clean past neighborhoods.
© David Stone / Roosevelt island Daily

New York's big little city, Roosevelt Island, in ways outsiders never imagine, is Manhattan's little Island. Hard to find, but once found, we're hard to shake off.

Going Big with Little

Spending an afternoon in Yorkville, looking at Roosevelt Island across the East River, I remembered how annoying it used to be when the RIRA Column in the Main Street Wire repeatedly referred to our narrow strip of Manhattan schist as "our little ship..."

Related: 10 Ways To See New York

Some ship.

We're the opposite of a ship. We're a rock. Floating or sailing are not among the possibilities.

Also, we're not little. 

Think of it this way. The modern community on Roosevelt Island was envisioned as the City of Tomorrow. It was the most desirable piece of undeveloped Manhattan real estate in the 1960s.

It's a promise imperfectly fulfilled.

Somehow, even with City finances in the toilet, politicians found the gumption to resist the stampede of investors eager to convert land into gold. They teamed up with the State to create a uniquely income integrated community.

That was big because, until Manhattan Park broke the mold in 1989, every housing complex, the WIRE buildings, participated in the Mitchell-Lama Program that kept housing affordable.

Market rate complexes add spice without overwhelming the traditional essence on Main Street.

No community in the world developed under the exceptionally favorable conditions Roosevelt Island did. 

Not only was affordability a cornerstone, solidifying stability, the community was urban but isolated, a buffered island in the middle of one of the world's great metropolitan areas, with limited access.

Until the subway opened in 1989, mass transit was MTA buses and the Tram. It wasn't easy to get here, and only a special few wanted to anyway.

The original Roosevelt Island Tram lifts off toward Manhattan
The original Roosevelt Island Tram lifts off toward Manhattan
© Fine Art Photographic Print by Deborah Julian

Into the 21st Century, you could still meet people who insisted that there was no subway stop for Roosevelt Island, even after you told them you rode one every day.

A favorite inquiry: "Do you have to ride the thing?" (Asked with a hand raised to suggest flight.)

And the Tram played a key role in community building. People got acquainted on the only commuter tram in the world. It was shared, highly enjoyable resource. It was, for many, the only way to get to and from anywhere.

Think about that. A one of a kind community with a one of a kind primary mode of transportation for commuters. We had to be friends.

Roosevelt Island remains in a class of its own, if modified over time, today.

Vintage Roosevelt Island, north end lighthouse stands guard over Hell Gate.
Vintage Roosevelt Island, north end lighthouse stands guard over Hell Gate.
© David Stone / Roosevelt island Daily

Big On Little

Sometimes, we forget how big some of our singular features are, but take a stroll on the Upper East Side on a summer Sunday evening. The fetid aroma of trash left out for Monday morning pick up inspires appreciation for our sui generis AVAC.

We've lost some edge on this account, but as recreated in the 1970s, Roosevelt Island was one of the first fully barrier free communities on earth. Curb cuts for wheelchairs were a rarity, but not here.

Roosevelt Island was open to everyone.

Who else gets free regularly scheduled public transportation? On red buses or any other vehicle?

Last Thoughts on Our Big Little Island

We're used to being told that we're small in geography, but are we?

Looking at Roosevelt Island from the ideal perspective of Carl Schurz Park, you see a strip of land extending all the way from Yorkville-Hell Gate-Astoria past Long Island City, the Upper East Side and much of midtown before exiting gracefully, tapering into the East River in FDR Four Freedoms Park.

You see a community blessed with enough green space that, from across the river, it looks like it's embedded in a park.

At that distance, you don't see the full featured historical preservation, the commitment to public art nor the diversity of neighbors.

You don't see the world class post grad campus that nudges the world's technology at the perimeter every day, and you don't see the only park dedicated to the ideals of the man considered by many to be our greatest president.

Cornell Tech and Four Freedoms Park seem impossible. Until you get here. Especially by Tram.

How did we get so much in one place?

By neither being nor thinking small.

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