In the middle of East River, by the Queensboro bridge, lies the hidden side of NYC. It is a very thin stretch of land, 240 m large and 3 km long, facing Midtown, and having somehow reflected New York City’s dark side over the ages.
I believe nowhere you’ll find such a bleak picture of this almost-never-mentioned in guides place. After all, it’s got just a bunch of would-be luxurious rental buildings, a Japanese and Italian restaurants, a little shuttle crisscrossing its only street all day long, and a tiny park; what is there to say about this piece of land barely connected to the big island?
From a purely sociologically point of view, it would be interesting to investigate what big cities which are crossed by rivers do with their small islands, if they happen to have one. In Paris, Île de la Cité, the craddle of the city’s history, was an important military, religious and royal centre, and remains today a masterpiece of tourist attractions and a very expensive place to live. Prague has the Strelecky Ostrov, with its parties and its shooting training ground through the 19th century; today it is a blissful garden in the middle of the city’s historical district. Montreal, itself an island, like Manhattan, has the little Île des Sœurs, among other tiny islands, which has been a religious haven until its closeness to the city center unleashed massive urbanization.
So what is the story of Roosevelt Island? It used to be called Manning Island, after the guy who purchased this piece of land back in the 17th century; his family built one of the “oldest” dwellings still remaining in New York, the Blackwell house (1796), today a sad and lonely piece among the surrounding metal and glass constructions.
But then the already booming City of New York bought this island in 1828, and built a prison there. Followed a penitentiary hospital, a “Lunatic Asylum”, a workhouse for the bad guys and a smallpox hospital. And for the next hundred years, this place accumulated the bad, the mad and the sick, trying to clean a bit Manhattan of it, if that was ever possible. The hospital served not only the prisoners, but also the poor from New York. The Queensboro bridge was built at the turn of the 20th century, but it didn’t provide access to the undesirable on the island. Then, just before WWII, the prison was getting overcrowded, and another island – Rikers – was to take the relay with the inmates. The Blackwell lighthouse was one of the works completed by the convicts, remaining on the northern tip of the island.
The second half of the century and the booming urbanization tried to overcome the sad history of this land; various committees and corporations endeavoured into building some profitable square meters on the island, already connected to Manhattan with a cable tramway. After all, it was facing the famous building of the United Nations, and an already posh Upper East Side. It was named for some time Welfare Island, to help erase a dirty past; then Roosevelt in the 1970s, until today.
Nowadays Roosevelt Island is a desolate sleepy neighborhood, quite expensive though, home to many UN officials and a few remaining rent-stabilised dwellers. Its only street has a couple of bare-necessities shops, and a hybrid bus helps people move back and forth to the metro station, deep under, linking the island to Manhattan and Queens. An eerie boardwalk unveils amazing views over the Astoria power plant erected on the east side of the river. But even today, you cannot walk here from Manhattan, as if the ghosts of the prisoners and the sick still haunted the place; and unlike other big cities’ islands, Roosevelt won’t soon deserve its place in tourist guides.