Roosevelt Island is a narrow island in New York City's East River. It lies between the island of Manhattan to its west and the borough of Queens to its east, and is part of the borough of Manhattan. Running from Manhattan's East 46th to East 85th Streets, it is about 2 miles (3.2 km) long, with a maximum width of 800 feet (240 m), and a total area of 147 acres (0.59 km2). Together with Mill Rock, Roosevelt Island constitutes Manhattan's Census Tract 238, which has a land area of 0.279 sq mi (0.72 km2). and had a population of 9,520 in 2000 according to the US Census. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation estimated its population was about 12,000 in 2007. The island was called Minnehanonck by the Lenape and Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island) by New Netherlanders, and during the colonial era and later as Blackwell's Island. It was known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973.
Roosevelt Island is owned by the city, but was leased to the state of New York's Urban Development Corporation for 99 years in 1969. Most of the residential buildings on Roosevelt Island are rental buildings. There is also a cooperative (Rivercross) and a condominium building (Riverwalk). One rental building (Eastwood) has left New York State's Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, though current residents are still protected. Three other buildings are now working toward privatization, including the cooperative.
1666 – After the English defeat the Dutch, Captain John Manning seizes the island, which becomes known as Manning's Island.
1686 – Manning's son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, becomes the island's new owner and namesake
1796 – Blackwell's great-grandson Jacob Blackwell constructs the Blackwell House, the island's oldest landmark, New York City's sixth oldest house and one of the city's few remaining examples of 18th-century architecture
1828 – The City of New York purchases the island for $32,000 (equal to $680,242 today)
1984 – The New York State legislature creates the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), with a nine-person board of directors appointed by the Governor, two suggested by the Mayor of New York City, and three of whom are residents of the island.
1989 – Subway service to the island begins with the opening of the Roosevelt Island subway station (F train).
2014 – Planned start of construction of the new Cornell NYC Tech campus on the site of the Goldwater Hospital (which will be closed and the patients relocated). The school plans to begin operations on the island in 2017.
Roosevelt Island in the East River, with Manhattan above and Queens below. New Jersey is in the background. Photo by George Garrigues
Though small, Roosevelt Island has a distinguished architectural history. It has several architecturally significant buildings, and has been the site of numerous important unbuilt architectural competitions and proposals.
The island's master plan, adopted by the New York State Urban Development Corporation in 1969, was developed by the firm of Philip Johnson and John Burgee. The plan divided the island into three residential communities, and is noteworthy because it forbade the use of automobiles on the island; the plan intended for residents to park their cars in a large garage and use public transportation to get around. Another innovation was the plan's development of a 'mini-school system,' in which classrooms for the island's public intermediate school were distributed among all the residential buildings in a campus-like fashion (as opposed to being centralized in one large building).
Looking at Manhattan from north of the Queensboro Bridge
The first phase of Roosevelt Island's development was called "Northtown." It consists of four housing complexes: Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood (also known as the WIRE buildings). Rivercross is a Mitchell-Lama co-op, while the rest of the buildings in Northtown are rentals. Eastwood, the largest apartment complex on the island, and Westview were designed by noted architect Josep Lluis Sert, then dean of Harvard Graduate School of Design. Eastwood, along with Peabody Terrace (in Cambridge, Massachusetts), is a prime example of Sert's investigations into high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings. It achieves a remarkable level of efficiency by triple-loading corridors with duplex apartment units, such that elevators and public corridors are only needed every three floors. Island House and Rivercross were designed by Johansen & Bhavnani. The two developments were noteworthy for their use of pre-fabricated cladding systems.
Subsequent phases of the island's development have been less innovative, architecturally. Northtown Phase II was developed by the Starrett Corporation and designed by the firm, Gruzen Samton, in a pseudo-historical post-modern style. It was completed in 1989, over a decade after Northtown. Southtown (also referred to as Riverwalk by the developers) is the third phase of the island's development. This phase, also designed by Gruzen Samton, was not started until 1998, and is still in the process of development. When complete, Southtown will have 2,000 unites in nine buildings.
Roosevelt Island Red bus
As of 2013, six of the Southtown buildings, with a total of 1,200 units, have been completed. Residential development of Southtown has brought new retail businesses to Roosevelt Island, including a Starbucks and a Duane Reade. Roosevelt Island has long had a limited variety of restaurants, but as a result of Southtown development, new restaurants appeared: Nonno's Foccaceria, Fuji East, Riverwalk Bar & Grill (2009) and Pier NYC (2012) on the West Promenade.
The Octagon, one of the island’s six landmarks, was restored in 2006. Originally designed by Alexander Jackson Davis in 1839 as part of the New York Lunatic Asylum, the national landmark and LEED Silver green building is now a high-end apartment community. It also houses the largest array of solar panels on any building in New York City.
Although Roosevelt Island is located directly under the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, it is not directly accessible from the bridge itself. A trolley used to connect passengers from Queens and Manhattan to a stop in the middle of the bridge, where passengers took an elevator down to the island. The trolley operated from the bridge's opening in 1909 until April 7, 1957. Between 1930 and 1955, the only vehicular access to the island was provided by an elevator system in the Elevator Storehouse that transported cars and commuters between the bridge and the island. The elevator was closed to the public after the construction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge between the island and Astoria in Queens in 1955 and demolished in 1970.
Roosevelt Island's residential community was not designed to support automobile traffic during its planning in the early 1970s. Automobile traffic has become common even though much of the island remains a car-free area. The MTA Bus' Q102 route operating between the island and Astoria obviates the need for automobiles to some extent.
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) operates an on-island shuttle bus service from apartment buildings to the subway and tramway for a fare of 25 cents (10 cents for seniors and disabled people). The bright red buses are highly visible.
As of the 2000 census, Roosevelt Island had a population of 9,520. Fifty-two percent of the population (4,995) were female, and 4,525, or 48%, were male. The population was spread out with 5% under the age of 5, 20% under the age of 18, 67% between the ages of 18 and 65, and 15% over the age of 65.
The median income was $49,976. 37% had an income under $35,000. 40% had incomes between $35,001 and $99,999, and 23% had an income over $100,000.
55% of the total households were family households, and 45% were non-family households. 17% of the residents were married couples with children, and 19% were married couples without children. 36% of the households were one-person households, and 9% were two or more non-family households. 3% were male-based households with related and unrelated children, and 16% were female-based households with related and unrelated children.
In April 2006, the Octagon, a 500-unit luxury rental building, opened its doors. Many young, affluent tenants occupy the studio, one-, two- and three-bedroom units. 100 of the units therein are set aside for middle-income residents. Also in 2006, a multi-building luxury condominium called Riverwalk completed construction of its first buildings.
On December 19, 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that a joint Cornell University-Technion-Israel Institute of Technology graduate school of applied sciences will be built on the Island. The $2 billion facility will include 2 million square feet of space on an 11 acre city-owned site, which is currently used for a hospital. Classes will begin off-site in September 2012, with the first classes in the new facility scheduled to start in 2018. The campus will take almost 30 years to be fully complete.
The New York Public Library operates the Roosevelt Island Branch at 524 Main Street. The library began in a community room, then moved to its own building in 1979. In 1998, the library became a branch of the NYPL system.
Roosevelt Island buildings
Roosevelt Island has its own community newspaper, The Main Street WIRE, founded in 1979 and published every two weeks. The WIRE derives its name from the first four residential buildings constructed on Roosevelt Island: Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood. Current and back issues are available online. Volunteers deliver the newspaper to every residential door in the community.
The newspaper confines its coverage to Roosevelt Island matters, reporting on community concerns ignored by other New York City media, including issues that arise by virtue of Roosevelt Island being a community within New York City which is operated by the State (not the City) of New York, with a local "authority" called the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) in charge. For several years, The WIRE has editorialized in favor of a stronger element of elected home rule for the community, and various small steps have been taken in that general direction. Most recently, the Residents Association (RIRA) has been in the process of mounting an election which will serve to nominate members to the Board of Directors of the RIOC. The Governor will retain the final nominating power, however.
1904: In O. Henry's short story "The Cop and the Anthem," the main character, a homeless man named Soapy, schemes to have himself arrested so as to spend the harsh winter serving a three-month sentence in Blackwell's Island prison.
2007: In the novel by Cassandra Clare, City of Bones, the protagonist is drawn to the island for a showdown with the elusive villain, Valentine.
1932: A Paramount Pictures film entitled No Man of Her Own is released, a light comedy film starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Upon learning that Gable's character is not in South America, but instead learns he has negotiated a deal to serve 90 days and "he's across the river", Lombard's character then looks out of her hotel window to a view across the East River and the Queensboro Bridge, later referring to this as "Blackwell's Island".
1939: A Warner Bros. film entitled Blackwell's Island is released. It stars John Garfield as a crusading reporter investigating corruption in the island's prison.
1966: In the film Mister Buddwing, a sign posted on a bridge in the film reads: "Stairway to Welfare Island." Suzanne Pleshette, playing the character Grace, tries to throw herself off the bridge wearing nothing but a fitted trench coat and white ankle boots, before James Garner's character saves her.
2002: Near the end of the film Spider-Man, the Green Goblin blows up the Roosevelt Island side tram station and leaves a group of children hanging inside one car. He also brings Spider-Man down to fight with him in the abandoned Smallpox Hospital on the island. The tram and the island make other appearances in Spider-Man media. The island is featured in the video gameSpider-Man 2. In The Amazing Spider-Man #161 and #162, appearing on the cover of the latter, and Spider-Man and Hulk fight on Roosevelt Island in The Amazing Spider-Man #328.
2005: Roosevelt Island is the setting for the film Dark Water by Brazilian director Walter Salles, where Dahlia (Jennifer Connelly) moves into a low-rent apartment with her daughter and then is terrorized by the ghost of a girl that used to live upstairs.
2007: In the film The Brave One, starring Jodie Foster, a memorable scene takes place at the Roosevelt Island parking lot. The film mentions the island several times.
1963: In the "Carrier" episode of Naked City (season 4, episode 29), a woman (Sandy Dennis) escapes from a chronic care hospital on Welfare Island – as it was then called – to carry a rare disease through the borough of Queens.
2005: In the second season episode of CSI: NY called "Dancing with the Fishes", a crime is committed inside the Roosevelt Island tram.
2010: On the TV show 24, NY CTU is based on Roosevelt Island.
2008: In the video game Grand Theft Auto IV there is an island resembling Roosevelt Island, named Colony Island. It also includes the ruins of a hospital, similar to the Smallpox Hospital. There is also a replica of the tram available for players to ride.
2011: Parts of the video game Crysis 2 take place on Roosevelt Island.
2006: The fictional high school which the main characters attend in the GONZOanime series Red Garden is on Roosevelt Island.
2009: On May 23, the island was the site of Improv Everywhere's "MP3 Experiment Six". Approximately 4,500 people traveled to the island to take part in a performance art piece where the southernmost point of the island became a "battleground" for the re-enactment of a fictional melee between townspeople and an ancient wolf.