On Sunday we were in need of a quiet-type of activity, so we decided to visit Roosevelt Island, a small island in the middle of the East River accessible from Manhattan only by a tram. We see the tram often as we walk our neighborhood from 52nd Street northward towards the Queensboro Bridge and 59th Street, very close to Whole Foods and Bed Bath Beyond. I had been apprehensive about making this tram trip as it had been recommended “only if you like heights.” However, I decided to forge ahead with a new experience.
It turned out to be a great day. The tram itself is a metal and glass-enclosed gondola with few seats but standing room for about 50 people. It traverses high above the East River following alongside the bridge towers and gives fabulous views of the city. The ride is only about 5-6 minutes and is fairly stable….just a few dips and sways here and there. Gulp. We deboarded and got a map and were off for the afternoon.
Roosevelt Island was given to the Duke of York as a gift for renaming the city New York from New Amsterdam after the British defeated the Dutch. He sold it to the Blackwell family in the 1600’s who lived there for generations until the city of NY took it over when back taxes were not paid. It was the perfect place to build a smallpox hospital, a leprosy hospital, and an insane asylum……close enough to NY for treatment, but isolated so that the inhabitants could not leave.
We walked to the southern tip of the island where there is a new national park, the FDR Four Freedoms Park. It is a narrow walk through groves of trees and natural plantings alongside the water. It is a serene place to be on a sunny fall day while looking across to the real world. The very end of the park is across from the UN and we were able to pick out our apartment building! We were also told that the park would be closed to visitors starting the next day for the weeks that the General Assembly would be meeting, so we felt very lucky to be visiting today. On this day we saw several patrol boats and Coast Guard ships in the water preparing security.
The smallpox hospital is now in ruins and being preserved. It is a lovely brick structure covered with ivy. It was abandoned in the 1950s. A working hospital called Goldwater is now on the site where the penitentiary stood and nearby is the laboratory where the Salk vaccine was created.
As we meandered back towards the center of the island we came upon a riverwalk along the residential area which includes several apartment buildings, grocery stores, art gallery, library, cleaners, and civic center. A woman was struggling to walk along with bags loaded with cleaning supplies from BBB. We again remarked about how life is so challenging for New Yorkers….she would have had to take the tram across, walk to BBB, tote all she could carry back on the tram, and then walk to her apartment. As we stood in front of the old Blackwell House reading about its history, this same woman came up and asked us if we’d like the 10 minute Roosevelt Island history…..of course, we said yes! She had lived on the island for about 20 years and was very interesting. About 15,000 people live there, most of whom work across the river (via the tram) at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College, both of which are soon opening new centers on the island itself. She regaled us with tidbits of history and info that we would not receive from any guidebook. We are finding that New Yorkers tend to be this way…..friendly and eager to share their love for the city with visitors. We ended up walking with her to her apartment complex, and Den carried her bags.
At the northern end of the island is the Octagon, formerly the insane asylum and now a mix of old apartments and chic new modern ones. At the tip is a lovely old lighthouse that apparently was used not to safeguard the land from ships, but to provide light onto the grounds to discourage inmates from escaping. By this time we had walked a couple of miles and were happy to jump onto one of the red buses that traverse the island to return to the tram. The fare was a quarter, but we only had to pay 10 cents as seniors…..a bargain!
Once we came home we were able to walk to the end of our dead-end street and look directly across to the FDR park. We had not really known what we were looking at until we had been there on this Sunday afternoon. It was a great little adventure, and we were happy to leave the hustle and bustle of the city for a peaceful respite.