Getting to Roosevelt Island requires nothing more than a MetroCard swipe. Just another New York neighborhood, right?
Roosevelt Island feels like a completely different world. It’s located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens and you can get there either by taking the F train or by taking the Roosevelt Island tram, which was a quick little ride. It’s a lot of fun to see New York’s streets from a couple hundred feet in the air.
The first thing I noticed is that Roosevelt Island is quiet. You can see all of Manhattan’s traffic on FDR Drive but can’t hear any of it. Roosevelt Island is only two miles long and you can walk the entire thing without needing to stop for a car to pass. About 12,000 people live in this strange little city of its own, with the helpful amenities of Duane Reade, a fruitcart seller, three restaurants, and a library and school.
What Roosevelt Island also has in abundance, however, is a lot of outdoor recreation space. This also made it feel like a completely different world. Manhattan does an excellent job of creating these spaces, but the number of parks, athletic fields, playgrounds, and pools on the island was really surprising. It even has a community garden with separate plots so you can have your own garden within a garden!
Once on Roosevelt Island, my friend and I stopped first at The Octagon, a fancy apartment building that used to be the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum:
People were taking wedding photos in front of it, which I can understand because the stone is beautiful. But I couldn’t help but think of Shutter Island and the sorrow of that story. What lives were lived here? What lives were lost? What stories were never told, or told and disbelieved?
The spooky, eerie feeling of Roosevelt Island remained with me despite the heat and bright sunlight. Our conversation turned to other psychological thrillers and horror movies as we walked to the lighthouse at the northern tip of the island.
There’s clearly a legacy of advocacy on Roosevelt Island. The island is currently home to a K-12 school for students with disabilities, as well, so it was nice to see activism as a continuing conversation. Likewise, it was disturbing to think that such a calm, quiet oasis had been used as a place to remove individuals from society. (Kind of like Australia’s history as a British penal colony.)
From the lighthouse, we walked south, passing by a modern art commentary on what Roosevelt Island and New York City often represent:
As we walked south, we also passed Blackwell House, which dates from 1796. It changed hands a number of times and often housed the administrators of several Roosevelt Island institutions. You can read about it (and about Roosevelt Island’s five other Landmark buildings) here.
On the southern tip of Roosevelt Island lies perhaps its most interesting attraction: an abandoned smallpox hospital! The building was protected by a fence but the shell that remained, slicing straight through the sky, gave me chills:
At one time, those rooms were full. The walls closed in on the patients and on themselves. The ivy covering the building, blowing gently in the light wind, gave it a lifelike quality that juxtaposed sharply with the empty tree branches. Something’s wrong here.
People were quiet as they approached, looked around, took photos, and continued walking south to the park, concert venue, and memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that occupies the remainder of the island. I won’t say that I believe in ghosts but if I did, I’d be certain that this island is haunted.
And that’s reason in itself to go visit! Happy exploring!