Roosevelt Island: A Day Away from the City Without Leaving the City
Take a three-hour tour of this New York anomaly with plenty of open space, few cars, fewer pedestrians and very little noise
Many know Roosevelt Island for its aerial tram, accessible at 60th Street and Second Avenue, but there’s more to the island than a beautiful (and inexpensive) sky-high view of the city. The two-mile-long strip of land that sits in the East River between Manhattan from 46th to 85th streets and Queens has a curious history and a look and feel that’s miles away from Manhattan (even if it’s technically part of the borough). Mostly residential, its appeal lies in its beautiful green spaces, curious and sometimes dark history and a slower pace of life. You can, of course, explore the island that’s been known variously as Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island in any way you like, but if you’ve got about three hours on your hands, the following is a suggested itinerary that will allow you to see all of the island’s historical highlights as well as relax at local stops along the way. Note that if you’re the picnicking type, pack some nibbles as there are plenty of scenic spots on the island that are picnic-friendly.
The Roosevelt Island Visitor Center — adjacent to the tram station — is housed inside a restored kiosk that was once the entrance to the tracks for the trolley car service that ran to the island from 1912 to 1955 (long before the aerial tramway was installed in 1976 or the F train came to the island in 1989). At the Visitor Center, you can buy an assortment of Roosevelt Island souvenirs, historical books about the island, and — most importantly — maps for a suggested $1 donation. The map includes simple explanations of the various points of interest on the island, so it’s well worth the donation.
From the Visitor Center, walk due east to the eastern Promenade (it’s not far; the island is only 800 feet wide), and then turn right to walk underneath the Queensboro Bridge. It’s a five-minute walk to the Strecker Memorial Laboratory, which opened in 1892 as the nation’s first biological and pathological research laboratory. The lab was closed in the 1950s, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and then restored by the city to house a substation that has powered the E and M subway lines since 2000.
Past the Strecker Memorial Laboratory lie the ruins of the Renwick Smallpox Hospital, which opened in 1854 to care for people with contagious diseases and later was the home of one of the first nursing schools in the U.S. The crenellated Gothic Revival Style building was designed by James Renwick Jr., the architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was abandoned in the early 1950s, and in 2009 exterior stabilization was added to the structure to prevent it from further demise. It’s off-limits to the public — protected by security fencing — but it’s still quite possible to see the ruins and imagine how splendid it once looked.
At the far south tip of the island is the FDR Memorial Four Freedoms Park, opened in 2012 but designed back in 1974 by American architect Louis Kahn to memorialize President Roosevelt and his belief in four essential human freedoms: freedom of speech and expression, freedom to worship God in one’s own way, freedom from want and freedom from fear. Amid huge slabs of granite that offer spectacular views of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan — including (quite appropriately) the U.N. — is the FDR memorial itself: a bronze sculpture by Jo Davidson that offers a several-feet-high representation of Roosevelt’s head. There is also ample green space in the park for picnicking, sunbathing or simply relaxing before moving on to the north side of the island.
From the Four Freedoms Park, walk north along the western Promenade through Southpoint Park (filled with open grassy spaces and quite pet-friendly) toward the Coler Campus of the Coler-Goldwater Hospital, which opened in 1952 and still houses patients who require long-term care (you’ll see a large number of people tooling about the island in scooters and wheelchairs; this is largely because there are so many hospital and nursing-home patients who live on the island full-time). In front of the hospital, look for the “RIOC” bus stop, also known as “the red bus.” The red bus runs regularly, every 10 to 15 minutes, and costs only 25 cents per ride (10 cents for senior citizens). Take the red bus to its northern terminus, the Octagon (about a 10-minute ride).
The Octagon is currently the lobby of a 500-unit apartment building and home to a rotating art exhibit curated by the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association, but don’t let its current state fool you into thinking it’s always been a pleasant place. The site was originally built in 1839 as the NYC Municipal Lunatic Asylum, and it was there where in 1887 journalist Nellie Bly faked insanity to expose the mistreatment of patients at the facility. Her book, Ten Days in a Mad-House, led to a grand jury investigation and more stringent — and humane — policies at the hospital. Nonetheless, the asylum remained open for several years before being converted into the Metropolitan Hospital in 1894. The hospital was open until 1955, at which point the building fell into disrepair. In 2006, the property was reopened as a residential community, but visitors can still enter the Octagon to see the building’s original rotunda, framed by a spiral staircase, and the RIVAA exhibits, although photos are prohibited.
From the Octagon, walk west to the West Service Road, then turn right to get to Lighthouse Park, where you’ll find the Blackwell Island Lighthouse, built by convict labor in 1872 to light the way for boats navigating what were referred to as “Hell Gates waters” just north of the island. Today, it is probably one of the smallest lighthouses you’ll come across (it’s only 50 feet tall), but it was restored in 1998 and is a quaint attraction. Surrounding the lighthouse is the Lighthouse Park, which offers an excellent spot for spreading out a blanket on the grass and taking in views of both Manhattan and Queens before heading back down the island.
Walk back to the Octagon and catch the red bus going south; get off of the bus around Manhattan Park, a residential complex that’s also home to a Gristedes supermarket on the island’s Main Street. The street is still in a development phase, so there isn’t much to see, but you will find Coach Scot’s Main Street Sweets (559 Main St., 212-813-3388, mainstreetsweetsnyc.com), which offers scoops of ice cream and other yummy treats.
A bit past the ice cream shop is the Chapel of the Good Shepherd (543 Main St., 917-843-3338, goodshepherdchapel.net), which was opened in 1889 and provided a house of worship for indigent and sick people who lived in almshouses on the island (the reason it was called Welfare Island from 1921 to 1971). The church today is home to both Protestant and Catholic congregations and serves as a space for special events and community meetings.
Head a bit further south from the chapel is the Blackwell House, which is the oldest structure on the Island. The house was built by the Blackwell family, who took possession of the island in 1686 and held it for 150 years (hence the island’s name from 1686 to 1921). While the house isn’t currently open to the public, it’s being renovated and should be open within the next year. For now, you can marvel at its historically accurate exterior (restored in 2007) and imagine what it must have been like when the island was merely one house surrounded by a huge farm and quarry.
Just south of the Blackwell House, you’ll come across Riverwalk Commons, a cluster of businesses that include a Starbucks, a Duane Reade and three different dining options. If you’ve yet to eat, there’s the Riverwalk Bar and Grill (425 Main St., 646-833-7050, riverwalkbarandgrill.com), which offers both sit-down and take-away service (a great option for an impromptu picnic); the more upscale Fuji East Japanese Restaurant (455 Main St., 212-583-1688, fujieast.com); and Nonna’s Focceria (455 Main St., 212-753-2300), an Italian restaurant serving up both slices and pasta dishes. The center of the commons consists of a grassy area popular for families who want to visit the island without venturing too far from the tram, which is less than a five-minute walk away, or the F-train stop, which is at the west end of the commons. Just east of the commons is a tot lot where kids can also play, including a sprinkler pool, a playground with a kid-sized climbing wall and basketball courts. This is the ideal stop for a rest and a bite to eat before heading back to Manhattan, as if you’ve followed our route, you’ll have come full circle from your arrival on the island.
After resting and noshing in the commons, hop on the F train back into the city or walk back to the tram, which is the recommended route, as the views departing the island are slightly more exciting than those approaching it. Make sure to take photos as you’re descending onto Manhattan — this is one of those rare perspectives that you can only see from the tram or a helicopter (and the latter is much, much more expensive than a swipe of an MTA card).
Transportation Details: Transportation to and from the island is relatively easy. There are two ways to access the Island from Manhattan: the F train and the Roosevelt Island Tram. For public transport, there’s the Bryant Park/42nd St. F station, it’s a mere 14-minute ride. The tram takes three minutes to go from its Manhattan origin at 60th Street and Second Avenue (a five-minute walk from the N, Q, R; 4, 5, 6 station at 59th Street and Lexington Avenue) to the island’s tram station. It runs from 6am to 2:30am Monday through Friday and 6am to 3:30am Saturday to Sunday. Both the tram and the subway routes require an MTA card (or buying a one-way fare); if you have a monthly or weekly pass already, it’ll work on the tram. From Queens, you can also take the Roosevelt Island Bridge, which is the only option if you’re driving and includes a foot path.
Attraction Details: All attractions are open daily from at least sunrise to sunset except for the Visitor Center, which is open from noon to 5pm, Thursday to Monday and the FDR Four Freedoms Park, which is open from 9am to 7pm, Wednesday through Monday, but closed Tuesday. Visit rioc.com for more information and to see a calendar of upcoming special events on Roosevelt Island, including a summer movie series in Southpoint Park.