The Rise of a Healthy Community
By Gabriel Rodriguez-Nava

he days when Roosevelt Island served as New York City's depository for the gravely sick, the mentally ill, the criminally sentenced or the exiled are long gone. Also long gone are the days when the island would struggle to find a stable owner to care and fight for it.

PHOTO: Courtesy of Roosevelt Island Historical Society
Welfare Penitentiary, 1932: Another source of controversy and press coverage, lasted until 1935, when the prison was moved to Rikers Island.

Before the City of New York bought the two-mile-long island for $32,000 in 1828, this stretch of land passed through many hands. Dutch Gov. Wouter Van Twiller first purchased it from the Canarsie Indians in 1637 and called it Hog Island.

The purchase was later declared void by New York Governor Peter Stuyvesant, and the island went to Capt. Francis Fyn. But Fyn's ownership didn't last long.

When the English defeated the Dutch in 1666, Captain John Manning seized and re-baptized the island with his last name. But 20 years later, Manning's son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, became the island's new owner and namesake.

That name stuck for 235 years; meanwhile, Blackwell's great-grandson Jacob constructed the Blackwell House in 1796. Though modest, the house is Roosevelt Island's oldest landmark, New York City's sixth oldest house and, according to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, one of the city's only remaining examples of 18th-century architecture.

Name: Franklin D. Roosevelt Island
Population: 9,520 (2000 Census)
Directions: Take the F train to the Roosevelt Island stop. Or, board the tramway at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue. Or, by car, take the 36th Avenue Bridge from Manhattan or Queens
Size: .23 sq. mi. (.59 sq. km.)

Borough: Manhattan
Origin of current name: Named in honor of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Previous names: Minnahannock (to 1637), Varkens or Hog (1637-1666), Manning's (1666-1686), Blackwell (1686-1921), Welfare (1921-1973), Roosevelt (1973-present)
Current use: Residential

ver the course of a century, Blackwell Island became a center for the city's castaways. In 1832, a penitentiary was built for half of what the city initially paid for the island. Seven years later, the New York Lunatic Asylum, overcrowded with some 1,700 patients, was exposed by early undercover journalist Nelly Bly as a place of abuse and misery.

In 1856, the Smallpox Hospital opened. Other public health and charity institutions built in this period include the Charity Hospital and Alms House Buildings. The city changed the island's name (and purpose) to Welfare Island in 1921. <Click here to take a photo tour of Roosevelt's ruins>

But in 1968, with many of the welfare buildings closed and in ruins, a committee appointed by Mayor John Lindsay recommended building a residential community on the island. After New York State's Urban Development Corporation signed a 99-year lease to develop apartment housing, Welfare Island became Roosevelt Island in 1973. A dynamic community began to emerge after a series of affordable apartment buildings started to open.

PHOTO: Gabriel Rodriguez-Nava
Blackwell House, Roosevelt Island's oldest historical site, is where Peter Cooper sold the island to New York City.

The Tramway, Roosevelt Island's icon, opened in 1976 and has been followed by a number of public service offices and institutions, parks, clubs and cultural centers. In 1989, 13 years after its scheduled opening, the Roosevelt Island Subway Station opened. The station is 100 feet underground, making it one of the deepest in the city. Originally estimated at $28 million, the projects' final tab came to over $800 million.

Today, Roosevelt Island residents feel proud to live in a place where crime is low, where diverse people know and greet each other by name and where New York City's stressful bustle is only a distant murmur.

This same sense of community has also brewed political awareness and activism. Today, residents are fighting to keep their racial and social diversity intact by trying to maintain their affordable rental costs. They're also pushing for direct representation in the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, a governing body created by the state legislature, which has recently run into clashes with the island's resident's association.


fter the Steinway Tunnels under the East River were completed in the 1890s, the landfill ended up as an artificial island that, until 1976, was better known as Belmont Island. In 1976, a group of United Nations employees decided to plant trees and flowers in the island and renamed it after U Thant, the Burmese secretary-general from 1961 to 1971. Soon, it will host an obelisk by Caples Jefferson Architects designed to fall apart gradually over 1,000 years.

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