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Not Quite Utopia: Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island is a peculiar place with an equally bizarre history. The approximately 2 mile long island is situated on the East River between Manhattan and Queens and beneath the Queensborough Bridge, a bridge that apparently casts such an overwhelming shadow that Roosevelt Island gets lost in it. It’s not that no one in New York has heard of the quaint little island, but it seems not many people give much thought to it. I know I just referred to Roosevelt Island as “peculiar” and “bizarre” but those weren’t lobbed as insults; I actually like the place. 

The architecture is generally gloomy. There are, however, very prominent splashes of red accents around the island to provide some color; and the new Cornell Tech campus is rather modernistic. Futuristic? Whatever, it’s a quite a sight, all that glass and metal. 

Roosevelt Island, due to its location, has always boasted spectacular views of Manhattan. At the southern end of the island there’s the granite-clad Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park where you can take in a spectacular view of the Midtown skyline. Before reaching the park, though, you have to pass by Renwick Ruin. But let’s call it what it really is: a fantastically dilapidated smallpox hospital. Yes smallpox, or that “loathsome malady” if you prefer 19th-century-speak.

On the northern end there’s a Gothic revival lighthouse that used to illuminate the nearby New York City Lunatic Asylum. The asylum itself is no longer standing but its distinct octagonal main entrance has been incorporated into the adjacent luxury apartment complex.

Given Roosevelt Island’s slight geographical stature, it may come as a surprise to some that there’s public transportation available, but it’s true — those red RIOC (Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation) buses will take you all around the island for free. From 1991 to 2014 there was a 25-cent fare to ride the bus but RIOC scrapped the fee. Why? Well, fare collection and maintenance was a two employee endeavor and eliminating the bus fare ended up being a significant money saving move.

While the Red Bus will take care of your on-island transportation needs, there are four ways to get to and from Roosevelt Island. The Roosevelt Island Bridge links Roosevelt Island to Queens and is the only route in or out available to vehicles and pedestrians. Luckily the MTA didn’t forget about Roosevelt Island; there’s one subway station, served by the F-train. A ferry landing opened on the island in 2017 as part of the East River Ferry’s Astoria line, which also makes stops in Long Island City and Manhattan. And then there’s the famous Roosevelt Island Tram. Using a Metro Card, not-quite-thrill-seekers can enter the Tram at 59th Street in Manhattan and glide over the East River to Roosevelt Island. The view is stunning. 

Best of all, Roosevelt Island is never crowded, so it’s a good place to get away every now and then; in fact, compared to the rest of NYC it feels deserted. Of course it’s not literally deserted. People do live there. And cats. Because Roosevelt Island also serves as a feral cat colony. 

I don’t like cats, but I do like Roosevelt Island (just in case you couldn’t tell). 

Roosevelt Island Tram, departing the Manhattan side

Cornell Tech

Renwick Ruin/Smallpox hospital

FDR Four Freedoms Park

FDR Four Freedoms Park

FDR Four Freedoms Park

FDR Four Freedoms Park

Strecker Laboratory

The Red Bus

Ravenswood Generating Station

Roosevelt Island Bridge

Roosevelt Island subway station

One of several Tom Otterness sculptures found in the East River around Roosevelt Island

Chapel of the Good Shepherd, now serves as the community center

Blackwell House

The Octagon

The Lighthouse

Roosevelt Island Tram station

Roosevelt Island Tram over the East River

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