Notes From the Field: Roosevelt Island
Riding to Roosevelt Island (all photographs by the author)
In the East River right between Manhattan and Queens, the narrow stretch of Roosevelt Island is home to residential high-rises and parks and whole lot of new development, but at one time this little stretch of land was off limits, home to prisoners and asylum inmates, a smallpox hospital and laboratories dedicated to studying the most virulent of diseases.
1879 map of Blackwell's Island (via David Rumsey Map Collection)
The history of Roosevelt Island goes to the very first days of New Amsterdam. First occupied by the Canarsie Indians, the island was bought from the natives in 1637 by a Dutch trader with the amazing name of Wouter van Twiller. Twiller lost the land when the British took over the territory, and after a brief transition period, it passed into the hands of its first significant owner — a British subject by the name of Robert Blackwell. The island would be known as Blackwell's Island until 1923, when the city renamed it to the less charming, but accurate, Welfare Island.
Archive photograph of Welfare Island
The city of New York purchased the island in 1828, and spent the next two decades building all of the things they no longer wanted in town: insane asylums, workhouses, a prison, and a smallpox hospital — all with a slightly Gothic grandeur.
Archive illustration of Welfare Island (via nyc-architecture.com)
After all this ambitious building of things to service the city's least desirable tenants, there was brief shining exception to the idea of using the island as a sort of fortress of isolation. In 1904 ,this beautiful concept was presented to the city: an imagining Roosevelt Island connected to the city by a series of new, stately bridges and home to a neo-classical Civic Center complex, strategically located outside any of the five boroughs proper.
The Blackwell's Island Bridge (via NYPL)
That vision was never realized, but in 1909 they did finally build the Queensboro Bridge... right over the island, leaving all those debtors, prisoners, and crazy people still conveniently isolated from vehicle traffic (a trolley line allowed individual visitors or workers to stop mid-bridge and descend by elevator).
The last century has brought huge change to the island. The old hospitals and asylums and other public buildings passed out of their useful lives and into a slow process of abandonment and decay, and the prison closed and was demolished. The 1960s saw the rise of what I think can fairly be described as some extremely uninspiring housing high-rises, and finally the connection to Manhattan and Queens by bridge, subway, and aerial tram. In just the last few years the ruins of Roosevelt's old public health buildings have been converted or restored into new uses.
Wanting to see what remains of this tiny island's colorful past, I took a day out of a recent visit to the New York team to explore Roosevelt Island, tip to top.
First things first: TAKE THE TRAM. I mean, look at this thing: It flies 250 feet over the East River from Manhattan, and drops you off on the lower third of the island, easy walking distance from my first destination: the smallpox hospital ruins.
Right next to where the tram let me out, I found this adorable vintage kiosk, now home to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. Not only were they a wealth of local knowledge, helping me orient myself right away and undeterred by my nerdy history questions, they also had a really great map available for $1.
I chose to walk the southern tip of the island, and then catch the local red bus for 25 cents up to the northern portion, but with a longer day it would easily be possible to walk the whole length of the 2 mile long island.
Historic image of Strecker Memorial Laboratory
Not too long ago, the Strecker Memorial Laboratory stood in near ruins. Today, it's hard to tell. Just south of the bridge and tram on the east side of the island, this little outbuilding was once the site of the country's first pathological and bacteriological research facility. After decades of neglect, it was finally restored in 2010, and now hides a power substation for the island's trains.
In addition to other urban wildlife, Roosevelt Island is home to a large stray cat population, abandoned to fend for themselves. A local group called Island Cats runs a program to watch out for the cats, and offers a trap, neuter, and adoption program. Slinky felines can be spotted luxuriating amongst the ruins and parks on the southern end of the island.
Illustration of the Small Pox Hospital from 1872
Renwick Smallpox Hospital opened in 1856, designed by James Renwick, the same renowned architect who designed Grace Church on Broadway and St. Patrick's Cathedral on Madison Avenue. Despite the fact that the hospital came at a time when smallpox was, in theory, cured, in reality it very much still plagued cities as busy as New York.
Now in a state of elegant but unstable ruin, there are plans to stabilize the remaining structure and open it to the public as part of the park lands. For now, the building itself is off limits behind fences to all but the cats.
I found this feline urban explorer lurking by one of the hospital's old entrances. Moments later, he stretched, rolled, and then made his way into the off-limits hospital grounds via a convenient cat-sized hole in the scaffolding.
Heading north, about halfway up the island, stands its oldest structure: The Blackwell House. This modest farmhouse was built by the Blackwell family between 1796-1804, making it not only the oldest on Roosevelt Island, but in fact the sixth oldest building in all of New York. Like so many of the other historic structures, this one was also saved from near ruin, restored in 1973.
Roosevelt Island also deserves some modest acclaim fro being the only municipality in the United States to dispose of its trash via an enormous, island-wide pneumatic tube system. The waste management facility operates out of a nondescript AVAC building near the firehouse.
Illustration of the Insane Asylum on Roosevelt Island
The real prize of the island, as stories go, is at the northern tip. Once known as New York City Lunatic Asylum, it would be easy today to walk right by and not guess at the octagon-shaped building's sordid history. In fact, Charles Dickens was horrified by his 1842 visit, describing the inmates' "naked ugliness and horror."
But things really got interesting in 1887, when a truly intrepid young reporter by the name of Nellie Bly took her first assignment for the New York World, and impersonated a Cuban amnesiac in order to get herself committed to this, one of the city's most feared institutions, to report on it from the inside.
In all, she spent ten days locked up inside the asylum, creating a minor media sensation herself as rival papers on the insanity beat began to wonder about this intriguing new patient. After she was sprung from her trap by the World's lawyers, she wrote up her experiences and observations in one of the most famous pieces of exposé journalism in American History.
Her series of articles, untitled Ten Days in a Mad-House, were illustrated with line drawings of her adventure, and described a horribly overcrowded institution, overrun with rats, neglected by the administration, and patients receiving the minimum of care and the maximum of punishment.
She drew the line just short of allowing herself to be committed into the ward for the violently insane, saying: "The insane asylum on Blackwell's Island is a human rat-trap. It is easy to get in, but once there it is impossible to get out. I had intended to have myself committed to the violent wards, the Lodge and Retreat, but when I got the testimony of two sane women and could give it, I decided not to risk my health — and hair — so I did not get violent."
Yet another building rebuilt from ruin, all that remains of Bly's madhouse is the Octagon Tower, now the hub of a posh residential rental unit. It is possible to wander into the lobby and try to imagine what it might have been like to have been brought in in shackles or a straight-jacket, but aside from a few nicely framed photos of the building in its former state of neglect, there is little remaining to bring to mind its bad old days. The current website, for the record, magnificently glosses over the building's sordid past with only a glancing mention of its history as a "hospital" and how Dickens was impressed by the architecture (nevermind what he said about the residents).
Marking the furthest north point on the island, the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse once helped ships navigate the treacherous waters of the Hells Gate. Although not — as some legends hold — built in a frenzy by madmen, it was most likely built by the hands of the prison inmates slightly further south on the island. It is currently behind fencing following damage from Hurricane Sandy.
The lighthouse is backed up by a quiet grassy park, one of many places on the island perfect for a picnic and a little reflection on the past.
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