Roosevelt Island NYC, Home of the Roosevelt Island Tram

Roosevelt Island NYC can seem invisible, even to New Yorkers, considering it splits a famous river square in the middle of the largest metropolitan area in the United States and is home to the Roosevelt Island Tram, one of the truly unique attactions in New York City.

Roosevelt Island occupies a narrow band of rock, two miles long, between Manhattan’s other island (Manhattan, the one you’ve probably heard about), and Queens, shouting distance from Brooklyn.

Recently, a friend who travels to New York on business regularly remarked, ‘Roosevelt Island? I didn’t think anybody lived there!’ A good number of my neighbors would be happy to have it stay secret.

(For a comprehensive article about the City, including Roosevelt Island, see New York City 365.)

Roosevelt Island merchandise, check out my I Love Roosevelt Island, New York, Shop.)

Roosevelt Island Historic Lighthouse print
Roosevelt Island Historic Lighthouse by davestone13
sell my art online with zazzle.

When my wife and I first moved to Roosevelt Island, Steve, one of my new neighbors and a fast friend, referred to this sliver of soil-coated rock in the East River as ‘the Little Island.’ The congested, hustling space with all the tourists where Steve and I went off each morning to work was, of course, the ‘Big Island.’

Unknown to most New Yorkers and, previously, to certain subway conductors, Roosevelt Island is politically part of Manhattan and New York County. This means that we are privileged to vote for the meaningless position of Manhattan Borough President, a job held by such recent stalwarts of the city’s future as… uhm, well, there weren’t any.

We are provided public services, fire and police, by operations from Queens, however, since the only vehicular access is from Long Island City. The Queensboro Bridge arches high over a southern section of our island, but cars, trucks and buses pause here only in frustration during routine traffic jams, the only exit option being to crash through the barriers and drop a hundred feet to land or water.

Roosevelt Island, New York City–Where Is It?

Situated in the East River, its narrower East Channel leaving it much closer to Queens, the island originally known to Europeans as Blackwell’s or Hog Island, after a farm that once thrived it, looks to Manhattan for spiritual connection, and one has only to glance at the what-is-it skyline of western Queens to understand. A Citi tower rises above the general rabble of Outer Borough buildings like a freakish, glass torpedo nobody knows what to to with. So, we look instead at the Upper East Side, New York Hospital, the ritzy apartment towers along West End Avenue and Carl Shurz Park, Gracie Mansion tucked inside. Nice. Powerful tides push the West Channel waters in both directions as barges, tugs, tankers, Coast Guard patrols and pleasure craft veer toward Manhattan.

For much of its history, Roosevelt Island was relegated to a dumping ground of sorts for the rest of the city, earning it an official renaming as Welfare Island, a title it retained into the 1960s. Until the Roosevelt Island Bridge was built to carry unwelcome traffic down 36 Avenue across the narrower channel, it was so inaccessible that it became convenient to establish the facilities no other location wished or was prepared to accommodate, much like lowly weak sister Staten Island, which was awarded the later disgraced and wildly misnamed Fresh Kills Landfill–meaning they got everyone else’s garbage.

What Roosevelt Island–virtually without political representation since nobody lived here–won from the city was the penitentiary (prior to Rikers), the alms house and, gruesomely, the infected corpses of plague victims dumped on the shore when there were too many to bury.

Two good things came of this isolation. The first and still most visible is our pair of long term care hospitals, appropriate because a barrier free commitment makes it easy to roam on wheels with lots of open space in which to relax and meet friends. The second is the lack of congestion that rabid development brings. A decade into the Twenty-first Century, Roosevelt Islanders can stroll the sidewalks without dodging distracted shoppers, competing traffic or overwhelmed tourists. A roughly four mile promenade along the shore offers runners a car-free workout that is safe at all hours.

An amusingly common experience is observing the confused look on other’s faces when we tell them we live here. As the facial clouds begin to lift, the consistent question arises, ‘Do you have to ride the thing?’ accompanied usually by an arm gesture suggesting vertically uplifted transportation. When told that the busy F train visits our island, the follow up is, ‘Really?’ as if we might be joking.

The New Roosevelt Island Tram print
The New Roosevelt Island Tram by davestone13
Browse Roosevelt island tram Posters

The Roosevelt Island Tram (Video Attached)

The ‘thing’ mentioned by Manhattan-centric New Yorkers, who ordinarily agree that the U.S. is comprised of Manhattan, Los Angeles and flyover country, even if both major airports are in Queens, is our beloved and temporarily mothballed Roosevelt Island Tram.

(Video On YouTube: Tram Ride At Night)

The Roosevelt Island Tram, constructed to enhance access during residential development of the island in the 1970s, launches from 2nd Avenue between 59th and 60th Streets, and carries riders silently by cable across a fair stretch of the East Side before floating over the river parallel with the Queensboro Bridge and touching down gently near a tennis center used secretly (shhhh!) by Harrison Ford as well as former Mayor David Dinkens who generally goes unrecognized. Interestingly, Ford and others are openly ignored as well, since most New Yorkers are not impressed by celebrity, except the disgraced kind like Bernie Madoff or Kevin Youkilis, neither of whom will ever freely walk our congested streets anyway.

When the great Buddy Hackett was still alive, he retained an apartment here and was occasionally observed behaving like a normal person, except for the extreme nasal delivery when greeted.

The Roosevelt Island Tram was intended to survive only for the twenty years it would take to build a tunnel beneath the river to give us the same transit privileges as the rest of the city, but by the time the local subway station opened in 1989, then serviced by the new Q line, our gentle cable-hauled carriage had become so beloved, something equal to quelling the Whiskey Rebellion would’ve been required to junk it.

The Roosevelt Island Tram was rebuilt, nearly from the ground up, reoping in Novemeber 2010. Here is a video of The Roosevelt Island Tram Grand Reopening, in which the politicians line up the event to take credit for spending our money.

The General Uniqueness of Roosevelt Island

Most visitors can ignore the fantastic rents and great living spaces, but no one coming to Roosevelt Island misses the unique sense of being in a small town, separated by the thinnest membrane from a bustling, congested metropolis. We hear the sirens and roaring traffic across the water with a certain immunity. We can take it or leave it. We can sit or sunbathe on the popular Meditation Steps and let the sweep of water maintain our seclusion.

There is a high, although decreasing, percentage of green spaces. The narrow north end of the island pokes into Hell Gate, the joining of waters where the East River splits between the Harlem River and a branch the connects with Long Island Sound. An old, now inactive lighthouse anchors a rolling park filled with picnickers on summer weekends and holidays and is always a great spot for a scenic stroll. The south end is deep into development as Four Freedoms Park that will honor Franklin Delano Roosevelt. What had been rough land left behind by abandoned factories and hospitals will be re-opened as an environmentally sound park and performance space. Between, small playgrounds and ballfields abound, making the community ideal for raising families.

Sharing honors as historic landmarks with the lighthouse are the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and Blackwell House. Both are now overseen by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), a public benefit corporation charged with developing the community. The old church is frequently used for community events as well as for worship, and the island’s restored revolutionary era first home is awaiting decisions about use after receiving a facelift in the last year.

Because the original plan for Roosevelt Island required a mixed income community and with the influence of many United Nations and embassy staff families settling here, ours is probably the most integrated community in New York. It’s almost certainly the most peaceful. Like much of the city, multiple languages can be heard in almost any public space, but more importantly, the island has become a magnet for some of the most interesting and important international residents. Kofi Anan, former head of the United Nations, made his home here while serving the world from his office on 1st Avenue. Some floors in our buildings offer contact with tenants from multiple continents daily.

The Main Street WIRE, a local newspaper much better than ought to be expected for such a small community already saturated with three dailies, plays a major role in informing the community about local political issues and cultural happenings. (Moment of truth: I am a reporter for said local rag, although I’ll argue that my most active role is annoying the editor with my error-filled submissions.)

Gallery RIVAA is a small, but impressive space in which the members produce a series of juried shows on Main Street as well as a smaller gallery in the Octagon, our northernmost residential building. They are responsible for community outreach, working regularly with the schools and hosting exhibits each year of art produced by residents of the long term care hospitals. In the last year, they also set up an impressive showing of artworks in an exhibit sponsored by the Cerebral Palsy associations and championed by Assemblyman Micah Kellner.

Main Street Theater and Dance Alliance runs a school for the performing arts and produces quality theater presentations year round.

Commerce

If Roosevelt Island has a shortcoming, it’s a lack of good commercial services. Main Street spaces originally designed to support a busy community are frequently vacant, and the combination of a shortage of discretionary money locally and an impossible set of state rules for renting out public spaces is likely to keep it that way. A single diner-like restaurant, Trellis, occupies the middle of the village while a Chinese take-out stays busy nearby. If anyone desires a more formal dining experience, it’s necessary to travel to the new Southtowns development to enjoy well-prepared and served Japanese food or a lively sports bar. In this common area, a Starbucks and a pizzeria have also been established.

Governance

In recent years as the accessible and forthcoming Steve Shane has headed up RIOC, the contentious atmosphere between residents and the ‘outsiders’ managing things has subsided, but remains ready to erupt whenever thin skins are bruised. But Mr. Shane was abruptly ousted in August, 2010, and replaced by Leslie Torres. Initially, it appears that the former was punished for his assertiveness and the latter rewarded for the opposite.

There are tensions between old-timers who want things as much as possible to be as they were and newcomers who envision a more urban space with greater access. RIOC and RIRA, the activist residents association, are less at loggerheads now than when the newest developments were being funded and approved.

Still, a determined band of locals continue to pound the drums about ‘bringing democracy toRoosevelt Island,’ even while admitting to have voted heavily for some guy named Bloomberg as well as Carolyn Maloney, Chuck Schumer,