I brought my bike to the city a few weeks ago and I’ve been riding around a good deal. It’s awesome. I really can’t say enough for bicycling as an inexpensive means of transportation and exercise. You can cover so much ground relatively quickly, and in New York City especially you can speed over massive suspension bridges, take in awesome views and escape to odd parts of the five boroughs with different landscapes and distinct cultures and all sorts of new things to see.
From the Wikipedia: Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is a small place with a huge Wikipedia page. It doesn’t say this on the page, but Roosevelt Island is the weirdest. It’s two miles long and 800 feet wide and sits in the shadow of Manhattan in the East River. While riding there a few days ago, I saw a pizza delivery guy and wondered if he was the only pizza delivery guy working on Roosevelt Island at that time. It turns out only 9,500 people live on the island, so it seems a reasonably safe bet that there’s only one active pizza-delivery guy at any given time. What happens if 10 people happen to order pizza delivery at the same time? You’ll have to be patient, I guess. The only dude is busy right now. Or — or! — you can just go pick it up, because how far can you possibly be from the pizzeria if you live on Roosevelt Island?
The island was purchased in 1637 by Dutch governor Wouter Van Twiller from the Canarsie Indians. At that point, it was known as “Hog Island,” which is crazy intriguing. Were there lots of wild hogs there? The Wikipedia doesn’t say. But if Roosevelt Island is conducive to hog breeding we should probably get on that. Or at least open up a destination barbecue joint there called “Hog Island.”
When the English ousted the Dutch from the area, the island was seized by Captain John Manning and renamed Manning’s Island for about 20 years until Manning gave it to his son-in-law Robert Blackwell, who called it Blackwell’s Island. In 1921, it was renamed Welfare Island. Then in 1973, a few years after it had been leased by a development corporation, it was renamed Roosevelt Island, presumably because it was hard to convince people to rent apartments on Welfare Island.
In the 19th century, the island was primarily used to isolate all the distasteful elements of urban life, kind of the Danny DeVito in Twins to Manhattan’s Arnold Schwarzenegger. The city built a penitentiary on the island in 1832, then a lunatic asylum in 1839, then a smallpox hospital in 1856. These attractions drew some of the island’s most famous visitors. Anarchist Emma Goldman, corrupt mayor Boss Tweed, jazz legend Billie Holliday and actress Mae West all spent time in jail there. Nellie Bly and Charles Dickens both visited and wrote about the lunatic asylum.
Before 1909, you could only travel to the island by ship or by swimming. When the Queensboro Bridge opened, so too did a trolley that took passengers from Manhattan and Queens to the center of the bridge, where they could take an elevator down to the island. The trolley and elevator were closed in 1955 with the opening of the Welfare Island Bridge to Queens.
In 1976, Roosevelt Island got one of its most recognizable features: The tramway that lets residents take an amusement-park to work in Manhattan. The tramway was supposed to be temporary, but everyone must have realized how awesome it was and decided to leave it there. You may recognize the tramway from the first Tobey Maguire Spiderman movie, or the 1983 Sylvester Stallone film Nighthawks, or City Slickers, or The Professional, or a 2005 episode of CSI: New York or a 2010 episode of America’s Next Top Model or a 2012 episode of White Collar, or from the King Kong Tramway ride at Universal Studios, Florida. Like I said, Roosevelt Island has a very extensive Wikipedia page.
You can also get to Roorsevelt Island by the F train, but c’mon. Lame.
The first residential development on Roosevelt Island, on the north part of the island, is called Northtown. The most recent development, on the south part of the island, is called Southtown. In 2007, Southtown got a Starbucks and a Duane Reade. You can read all about the latest happenings in Roosevelt Island in the Main Street WIRE, a bi-weekly newspaper dedicated to Roosevelt Island matters that is delivered to every residence on the island and that receives a suspicious amount of coverage on the Roosevelt Island Wikipedia page.
I’m already 750 words deep and nowhere near done recapping the page, so here are some other facts about Roosevelt Island worth knowing:
- A remnant of the lunatic asylum — the Octagon — and the ruins of the smallpox hospital are still standing and worth checking out if you’re riding your bike around Roosevelt Island. But good luck figuring out how to get there.
- The island’s waste is collected and compacted by an automated vacuum collection system, the only such system serving a residential complex in the United States.
- The Wikipedia claims that Sarah Jessica Parker lived there, but it lacks a citation. But former U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan and “Grandpa” Al Lewis of The Munsters definitely lived there.
- In 1939, the New York Cubans of the Negro National League played their home games on the island. There are a bunch of athletic fields still there now and they make for some pretty epic settings, what with the river and the skyline and all.
- Outside shots of the smallpox hospital in ruins are used to depict the Foot Clan’s secret hideout in the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie.
- Development of the island was based on the “new communities” proposed in Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs. Though the island is technically part of the borough of Manhattan, its government and infrastructure are operated by state-created public-benefit corporation. Police on the island are, as far as I can tell, state officers and not members of the NYPD proper.