By Laurie Lewis
Roosevelt Island, a two-mile–long strip of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, has had many names. Native Americans called it Minnahanonck, and Dutch colonists who raised pigs there in the seventeenth century dubbed it Varckens or Hogs Island. In the British colonial period, it became known by the name of the family that owned the property, and “Blackwell’s Island” stuck even after New York City acquired the land in the 1820s. Because the island was remote from the population center, the city deemed it ideal for a penitentiary, workhouse, and several hospitals. In 1921 came another name change, reflecting how the land had been used for about a century: Welfare Island. Nearly abandoned by the late 1960s, the spit of land became Roosevelt Island in the 1970s, named for the President of the United States from 1933 until his death in 1945. Now a planned community started to take shape. Perhaps a more fitting name for the present place might be New York’s “green” island.
Roosevelt Island in the center,
with Manhattan to the right and Queens to the left
Because Roosevelt Island was a planned community, it could address contemporary concerns. Among these were affordable housing, preservation of historic landmarks, and a clean and green environment. The master planners, architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, envisioned an urban paradise for mainly middle-class residents who would have everything they needed right on the island—shopping, schools, recreation—plus good views and easy access to the city. Life on Roosevelt Island also would be notable for what it did not have: car-clogged streets lined with garbage on collection days.
Although cars are not forbidden on the island, neither are they encouraged. Everything is a short walk, but residents who prefer to ride can take the free bus that loops around Roosevelt Island. People now have several alternatives to get on and off the island: a four-minute ride on the aerial tram connecting with Midtown Manhattan (marvelous views!), a bus connecting with Queens, and subway and ferry service to both boroughs. Anticipating that few people would drive on Roosevelt Island, the planners made the streets narrow—too small to accommodate an armada of sanitation trucks.
Of course, Roosevelt Island residents produce as much waste as anyone else. But after they throw it down their apartment building chutes, it follows a unique path. An Automated Vacuum-Assisted Collection (AVAC) system sucks up the trash and sends it whooshing through underground tubes to a central collection point, where it is compacted and carted away. Although AVAC is popular in other countries, until recently the only other place in the United States to have such a system was Disney World. In part, that’s because it’s easier to install an AVAC system in new construction than to retrofit existing communities. A new residential development on the west side of Manhattan, Hudson Yards, is installing an AVAC system.
Engineers are trying to harness the water that surrounds Roosevelt Island to generate electric energy. The East River technically is not a river; it is a tidal strait. The predictability of tides makes this hydroelectric energy enticing. Verdant Power, the first licensed tidal energy project in the country, has already demonstrated the environmental safety of its underwater turbines in this location and hopes to have enough turbines positioned off Roosevelt Island to supply energy to thousands of residents.
Last September, Cornell Tech dedicated the first buildings of its new graduate school on the southern part of Roosevelt Island. A joint effort of Cornell University and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the campus is a center of innovation and collaboration in engineering and business and an eco-friendly exemplar. The House is a 350-unit apartment building for students, faculty, and staff and the first residential high-rise in the world built to the most rigorous energy-efficient “passive house” standards. This is achieved by tightly sealed ductwork and a façade of metal panels that act like an insulating envelope around the entire structure. Other buildings on the campus also boast LEED certification, the global standard for “green” buildings.
Roosevelt Island is also green in the traditional sense. The island has large swaths of green space, from Southpoint Park on the southern end to Lighthouse Park on the northern end and small parks and community gardens in-between. Some of these green spaces contain relics from the days when this was Blackwell’s Island, including some repurposed structures. For example, Strecker Laboratory, a one-time medical research institution on the southern end, now houses a power substation for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Another example of historic preservation is the octagon tower from one of the early institutions on the island, the New York City Lunatic Asylum. Although most of the building is long gone, the tower now forms the lobby of the Octagon apartments.
And beneath it all, under both the buildings and the parkland, the AVAC system speeds away Roosevelt Island’s refuse at up to 60 miles per hour.
For a description of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, see our August 29 2018, blog.
Most Take a Walk New York tours cover 1 to 2 miles, last 2 to 2½ hours, and cost $25 per person. Advance registration is required. To register and to learn the meeting place, email the guide (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). Please arrive a little before the start time. Tours are cancelled if nobody has registered or if the weather is extreme; if in doubt, call or text Laurie (917-306-2868) or Alan (917-363-4292).
Greenwich Village: In the Footsteps of Writers
Many writers and other creative people have called Greenwich Village home. Follow in their footsteps as you meander through charming West Village streets and peek into hidden cul-de-sacs where some famous writers lived. See the former homes and hangouts of Edna St. Vincent Millay, e.e. cummings, Edward Albee, and many others. Maybe the Village aura will spark your own creativity!
Laurie gives this tour on Monday, September 3, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at email@example.com.
Public Art of Lower Manhattan
You don’t need to go to a museum to see great art. This interactive tour includes some of the most interesting and varied art in New York City. The artworks are as old as the doors of Trinity Church and as new as the SeaGlass Carousel.
Alan gives this tour on Friday, September 7, at 10 AM. Email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve a place and to learn the meeting location.
Fort Tryon Park
The high ground in Upper Manhattan that appealed to the new American army for a defensive fort when this country was young later attracted millionaires who wanted to build castles on the Hudson. We'll walk from the site of Fort Washington to Fort Tryon Park, exploring vestiges of a Gilded Age estate. We'll take in the Heather Garden and the park's extraordinary Hudson River views. You'll hear about a fearless woman who was a good shot with a cannon, a self-indulgent tycoon, and a generous Rockefeller. We'll end at the Cloisters Museum, which you may want to visit on your own.
Alan leads this 90-minute tour on Saturday, September 8, at 10 AM. Please email him (email@example.com) to reserve your place and to learn the meeting location.
400 Years of History in Less Than a Mile
Lower Broadway is like an illustrated history textbook, with the pages out of order. This stretch of Manhattan illustrates American history from colonial times to the present. Take a walk in the footsteps of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Hear stories about heroes like them, as well as rogues like William "Boss" Tweed. Look at beautiful buildings, including the first department store.
Join Alan on Saturday, September 22, at 10 AM to take a walk through history. Please email him (firstname.lastname@example.org) to reserve your space and to learn the meeting location.
Central Park: Marvels of the Northern Half
The northern end of Central Park features some of the city's most surprising landscapes. Did you know there are woods, complete with a lovely creek with waterfalls, in the middle of Manhattan? Have you ever visited New York's own Secret Garden? Are you familiar with the role this area played in early American wars? Discover the lesser known part of Central Park on this tour.
Celebrate the beginning of autumn with a walk through the northern half of Central Park. Meet Laurie on Sunday, September 23, at 1 PM. Please email the guide (email@example.com) to register and to learn the meeting location.
Parks of the East 90s
What is a park? A park in this concrete and steel city may be different from one elsewhere. On this walk, you'll see different types of parks in two adjacent Upper East Side neighborhoods---Yorkville and Carnegie Hill. See how these parks vary to serve local residents. And get a glimpse of the parks and buildings at the northern part of Roosevelt Island from the Manhattan side of the East River.
Laurie gives this tour on Saturday, September 29, at 1 PM. To reserve a place and to learn the meeting location, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.