While we were waiting for our table reservation at Serendipity, the famous ice-cream store in Manhattan, we had a couple of hours to wander around. The cheapest and easiest option was to take the kids down the street from Serendipity and take the Roosevelt Island tram. For the price of a New York subway ticket, we got to see Manhattan from a different perspective. Roosevelt Island is a pleasant residential island in the middle of the East River. There are plenty of things to do on Roosevelt Island to occupy yourself for an afternoon such as visit the Four Freedoms Park, the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse and the Octagon Roosevelt Island, all that remains of the former Roosevelt asylum.
The Roosevelt Island Tram
You get great views over the traffic and buildings in Manhattan from the tram as it crosses the East River. From Roosevelt Island itself, the skyline of the East Side of Manhattan is spread out before you.
The Roosevelt Island Tram entrance/exit is located at 59th Street and 2nd Avenue. It only takes a few minutes for the trip and runs regularly.
Kids, of course, will be familiar with the Tram from the climactic scene in Spider-Man (2002) where Spider-Man has to choose between his girl and the passengers on the tram dangling 250 feet above the East River.
Fear not, without the Green Goblin attacking the tram, it is perfectly safe. Over 26 million people have rode on the tram since it began operating in 1976.
What To Do on Roosevelt Island
The Four Freedoms Park
The tip of Roosevelt Island is being redeveloped into The Four Freedoms Park, named after the famous quote by Franklin D. Roosevelt from the 1941 State of the Union speech.
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression – everywhere in the world. The second is freedoms of every person to worship god in his own way – everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want…everywhere in the world. The fourth is freedom from fear…anywhere in the world.
– Franklin D. Roosevelt
The park is the last work of the late great Modernist architect, Louis I. Kahn. It has taken 37 years to realise!
The Roadtrippers website describes Four Freedoms Park as one of America’s coolest secret parks.
The Roosevelt Island Lighthouse
You can visit the Blackwell Island Lighthouse which is located in Lighthouse Park at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island. It’s on the National Register of Historic Places as well as being a New York City Landmark. The lighthouse’s name refers to the original name of Roosevelt Island when it was owned by the Blackwell family.
The Roosevelt Island lighthouse was designed by the same architect that built St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue. The lighthouse was built with rock quarried by inmates from the island prison.
According to local legend, the lighthouse was built on the site where one of the inmates of the Roosevelt Asylum built a fort to defend against a British invasion. When the lighthouse was built, the inmate had to be persuaded to turn over the fort. There is a plaque that commemorates his industry still in Lighthouse Park.
The Roosevelt Island Promenade
The views from the Roosevelt Island promenade are spectacular. Can you believe the Blackwell Family sold this island to New York City in 1828 for $32,000 (about $700, 000 today). You would be doing well to get a 1 bedroom apartment in Manhattan today for that kind of money, never mind an entire island.
Spread out in front of you is the prime of Midtown Manhattan – such as United Nations, the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building.
About Roosevelt Island NYC
I had never actually been to Roosevelt Island before I took the kids.
Where is Roosevelt Island?
This island is located in the East River between Manhattan and Queens.
It had an infamous history as the dumping ground for the undesirables of New York society. In the 19th century, there was a penitentiary (for criminals) and asylum (for the mentally unstable) located on the island as well as an almshouse, workhouse and various hospitals.
Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary
Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary was opened in 832 because the other New York State prison was all the way upstate in Albany. The penitentiary housed serious criminals and workhouses were built for petty criminals who were punished with hard labor. The penitentiary could hold 1000 inmates and the workhouses had capacity for 221.
The Roosevelt Island Asylum
Unimaginatively called the New York City Lunatic Asylum, the center operated from 1839-1894. There were a lot more women than men in the asylum because it became an easy place to park a wife you didn’t want. Atlas Obscura has a fascinating piece on the history of the island.
The fact that the authorities dumped criminals, the mentally ill and the indigent together on Roosevelt Island tells you exactly what they thought about these people. In fact, in the early years of the Lunatic Asylum, the patients were taken care of by the inmates of the prison under the supervision of medical staff.
Anyway, Nelly Bly in a pioneering piece of investigative journalism, wrote about the horrors of the Roosevelt asylum which helped to close it down.
The Lunatic Asylum eventually got renamed to the less-pejorative Metropolitan Hospital in 1894. It was abandoned by the mid-20th century. In 1972, the hospital became a historic landmark.
An Island Idyll of Residential Housing
In the late 20th century, the island was converted to residential housing. It’s name was changed from (the ironic) Welfare Island to Roosevelt Island in honour of the 32nd President who was from New York.
One of the fascinating things about Roosevelt Island’s 1970’s residential transformation is that cars were not allowed in this apartments-only Communist type utopia. There are now 25+ apartment buildings now on the island.
A Clean and Car-Free 1970’s Utopia
And, Roosevelt Island is remarkably clean thanks to a 1970’s vision of a residential utopia.
Roosevelt Island has an Automatic Vacuum Assisted Collection System (AVACS) installed back in 1976 because the island was supposed to be car -free (and hence garbage truck free). Residents in the apartments drop their garbage in trash chutes and it gets whisked away by vacuum suction that operates at 60 miles an hour. It all gets taken away to a Central Collections and Compaction Plant. The plant then disposes of garbage in the usual way of other New York City residents.
Roosevelt Island Residents Today
There are about 10,000 residents now living on the island. Many diplomats choose to live there because of the easy access to the United Nations across the water.
In 2006, developers turned what remained of the ruins of the Lunatic Asylum into an eco-friendly, luxury residential complex. The Octagon Roosevelt Island refers to the Octagonal shaped building which served as the administrative center of the Roosevelt Asylum. The Octagon was much lauded for the beauty of its architecture in the 19th century, including by Charles Dickens in his travels through the USA.
More recently, Cornell University has built a state-of-the-art technology centre on the island.
So, in a nutshell, the things to do on Roosevelt Island provide a breather from the rest of New York. Taking the Roosevelt Island tram followed by a meander around the Four Freedoms Park, Riverwalk and the Roosevelt Island Lighthouse is a cheap and easy way to escape the chaos of Manhattan for a few hours. You’ll be rewarded with excellent views of Manhattan and Brooklyn and escape the honking of taxis, buses and cars as well.
We spent a pleasant afternoon in the park and expended enough energy to feel justified in ordering massively-oversized sundaes at Serendipity!