I’ve called Roosevelt Island home for the past four and a half years. It’s been named everything from Minnahanonck by the Native Americans to Hog Island by the Dutch and then Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island before the renaming in 1971, honoring President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps a more appropriate name would be Treasure Island. A somewhat mysterious, quirky Manhattan neighborhood, nestled under the Queensboro Bridge, Roosevelt Island often times goes unnoticed and underappreciated by New Yorkers and tourists alike. I’m asked routinely if it’s strange living on the island, and my answer is always the same: yes and no. It’s rich history and checkered past includes the city’s Lunatic Asylum, riddled with patient abuse, a penitentiary, and a smallpox hospital. It’s no secret; Roosevelt Island was a mandated sentence for the discarded people of New York City.
All of that changed in the 1960s, and today more than 14,000 residents, including second and third generations, call this piece of the rock home. It mirrors New York in that it is a mixture of old and new, a metaphorical fork in the road where the past intersects with the future. Indeed a hidden treasure, the island offers some of the best views of Manhattan. You still feel the bustle of the city while being able to catch your breath and slow down a few paces. Whether you’re visiting NYC, or you live here and simply haven’t ventured over, it’s worth the trip. Here are 9 must see island spots.
For the same price as a subway ride, swipe your metro card and board the tram. With spectacular aerial views over the East River, the tram provides you a front row seat to see the city up close and personal. At 250 feet, you literally feel as if you can reach out and touch the Queensboro Bridge as you hover over the traffic below. The Roosevelt Island Tram is one of only two commuter trams in the United States– the Portland Tram holds the other honor.
New York architect Alexander Jackson Davis designed the octagon shaped building for The New York City Lunatic Asylum, which opened its doors in 1841. Perhaps the most infamous building on the island, The Octagon has endured a troubled past, including scandal, fire damage, and demolition threats. Now a National Historic Landmark, The Octagon operates as a thriving luxury apartment building with 500 green designed rentals.
Constructed of stone quarried from the Island, the 50 foot lighthouse sits at its northern tip. Noted architect James Renwick, Jr. designed the lighthouse in 1872. Within the park there is a green lawn for playing frisbee or just hanging out and grills surrounded by numerous picnic benches. On the weekends you’ll spot families enjoying the laid back setting.
As you head towards the North end, you’ll spot wooden steps carved into the island. Here you can stop, gaze out at the East River, watching the colorful tugboats ease by. Islanders use this sacred space to sit quietly, exercise, meet up with friends, and yes, meditate. Get your Zen on.
South Point Park
You’ll need to walk through this 7-acre park in order to get to Four Freedoms. But don’t just breeze through. Geese flock to South Point Park, a wildlife oasis, and each year goslings take over as they learn to walk and fly.
The Small Pox Hospital Ruins
Designed by James Renwick, Jr. in Gothic Revival style, The Small Pox Hospital is the only landmark ruins in New York City. Both a reminder of the island’s dark past and rich history, the beautiful Ruins stand strong even after years of neglect.
4 Freedoms Park
Taking 40 long years to come to fruition, Four Freedoms opened in 2012. It stands as a tribute to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his historical 1941 Four Freedoms speech. Tranquil and majestic, It’s my favorite place on the island, and one of my favorite places in the city. This southernmost tip of Roosevelt island proudly claims a spectacular view of some of the city’s most iconic buildings: The United Nations building, the Chrysler building, and the Empire State building. As you explore, 120 Littleleaf Linden trees provide shade and beauty, as well as contributing to the New York City Million Tree Campaign. The park’s most recent claim to fame was 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton delivering her official campaign launch speech to a massive and energetic crowd with a Manhattan skyline backdrop.
Cherry Blossom Trees
Every April, 400 cherry blossom trees burst into life, blanketing the island promenade into a pink and white paradise. The island hosts an annual Cherry Blossom Festival to pay tribute. To walk among the colorful trees feels as if you’ve been transported to a Secret Garden.
Coming Soon . . . Cornell Tech Campus
This is the future of Roosevelt Island. After the city shut down and then demolished Coler-Goldwater Specialty Hospital south campus, construction began on the new Cornell Tech campus. Although the campus isn’t set to open until 2017, amid the steady construction, you can picture how Cornell Tech will become a prominent structure on the island. More than the bridges, the subway, or the tram, the Cornell Tech campus may be the one true thing that finally connects the island with the city.