Rise of a Healthy Community
By Gabriel Rodriguez-Nava
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
Courtesy of Roosevelt Island Historical Society
Penitentiary, 1932: Another source of controversy and press
coverage, lasted until 1935, when the prison was moved to Rikers
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.
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
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.
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.
Franklin D. Roosevelt Island
Population: 9,520 (2000 Census)
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.)
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
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.
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>
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.
House, Roosevelt Island's oldest historical site, is where Peter
Cooper sold the island to New York City.
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
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
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.
(U THANT) ISLAND
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.