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Roosevelt Island

Nestled in the East River between Manhattan & Queens, Roosevelt Island has experienced many incarnations, and consequently many names; Minnahononck, Blackwell Island, Welfare Island. Once fertile farmland, Roosevelt Island served as a home for asylums, various hospitals, and correctional facilities throughout the 19th century.

In the late 20th century, the island was the site of heavy residential development, including the transition of a prominent asylum, The Octagon, into a high-rise residential community. This transition led to increased public transportation into Manhattan, including a subway stop and a gondola tramway into the Upper East Side.

This planned community features numerous outdoor parks and recreation spaces, a bike path spanning the circumference of the island, and unencumbered views of neighboring Midtown East and the Upper East Side. Due to an abundance of green spaces, decent public transportation, and affordable rents, Roosevelt Island has drawn a mixed population of the younger generation and families.

The two-mile long strip of land nestled in the East River between Manhattan & Queens was purchased from the Canarsie Tribe by Dutch Governor Wouter Van Twiller. Then known as Minnahannock Island (meaning either "It is Nice to Be Here" or "Long Island"), the island is known to today's New York City residents as Roosevelt Island. With a maximum width of 800 feet and an area of 147 acres (expanded from the original 107), the island has had a number of names to go along with its many uses.

The Dutch called it Varcken Island, because they raised hogs there on the then fertile farmland. When the British defeated the Dutch in New York, Captain John Manning took up residence on the island. It then became known, appropriately enough, as Manning Island. This lasted until Manning's son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, inherited the island and renamed it after himself. Blackwell House, the oldest surviving structure on the island, was built in 1796, before the island once more changed hands.

In 1828, the City of New York purchased the island and it eventually came to serve as home to a number of hospitals, asylums and correctional facilities. It was during this period that the Octagon Tower (designed by Alexander Jackson Davis) was built, part of the New York Lunatic Asylum. Charles Dickens visited the island in 1842 and wrote of his experiences (see link below). In 1872, a 50-foot, Gothic style lighthouse was constructed by convict laborers at the northern tip of the island. The lighthouse, made of grey gneiss (a stone native to the island), still stands today as a landmark.

The island later became known as Welfare Island (1921). Mae West spent a famous ten days on the island, sentenced to jail time for the allegedly "crude" content she improvised during the performance of her first play (entitled “Sex”). Over the years, newer correctional facilities opened and the island's population of prisoners and insane asylum inmates was relocated elsewhere. Improvements were made to the island, now mostly occupied by hospitals, including the installation of the Delacorte Fountain, a man-made geyser on the southern tip of the island that sprayed salt water 250 feet into the air. The same year the fountain opened, a committee recommended to New York City Mayor John Lindsay that the island be turned into a residential community. The island was renamed Roosevelt Island and plans went into action for the island's transformation.

Roosevelt Island underwent heavy residential development. Many prominent structures were transitioned into residential and neighborhood buildings. The most notable of these is perhaps the Octagon Tower. The former insane asylum building is now an elegant high-rise apartment community that houses a shopping mall and boasts the largest array of solar panels on any building in New York City. The changeover to residential neighborhood led to the need for increased access to the island.

In addition to the bridge between Roosevelt Island and Queens (accessible by foot, car or bike), the island can be accessed via the Q102 bus from Astoria Queens, the F subway train (which makes a single stop on the island) or the Roosevelt Island tramway. Travel on the island itself must be done on foot or bike (as cars are not allowed on the vast majority of the island) or via the Roosevelt Island Red Bus. The Red Bus travels around the island in a circular loop and does not currently accept transfers. However, fares to ride are only a quarter ($0.25).

This planned community features numerous outdoor parks and recreation spaces, a bike path spanning the circumference of the island, and unencumbered views of neighboring Midtown East and the Upper East Side. Due to an abundance of green spaces, decent public transportation, and affordable rents, Roosevelt Island has drawn a mixed population of the younger generation and families. Notable island restaurants are Nonno's Pizza and Fiji East.
The island has its own, small school system (PS217 and IS217) and is one of the best places from which to view the New York City Fourth of July Fireworks displays. In addition, the Meditation Steps provide excellent views of Manhattan and Louis Kahn's Roosevelt Memorial is located on the island. The Roosevelt Island Branch is New York Public Library's presence on the island.

Dickens Link: http://nyc10044.com/timeln/dickens.html


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