Seeking asylum on Roosevelt Island

For those seeking a little solace in the city that never sleeps, you can’t look past Roosevelt Island.

Not Quite an Island Getaway

For the last 150 years, Roosevelt Island has been a dumping ground for the sick, the mentally ill, and the criminally minded. From the 1830s, it was the home of the New York City Lunatic Asylum, a prison that housed notable historic figures like the corrupt Tammany Hall teamster, Boss Tweed, silver screen siren Mae West and Billie Holiday who served time on prostitution charges. Little is left of its past, besides the ruins of the Small Pox Hospital and a laboratory. Instead, the island is now home of an ultra-modern university campus, a memorial and a killer view of the midtown Manhattan skyline.

This bridge was the subject of Simon and Garfunkel’s 59 Street Bridge

Riding High

With the convenience of a 4-minute ride away, and at a cost of no more than an extra swipe of your Metrocard, you can take the tram across the East River and put some space between you and the intensity of 59th Street. Don’t be fooled, though. As quiet as it may be, Roosevelt Island is a living, breathing island, containing a residential zone with many family facilities, sporting fields, historical points of interest and even a new Cornell University campus.

All aboard the sky tram
The noise of 59th Street slowly fades below us

The ride over feels like just that—a ride. You float parallel to the 59th Street Bridge (yes, the one from the Simon and Garfunkel song – feeling groovy yet?) which has since been renamed the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. As cars whiz by, the river surges below.

Riding the tram alongside the Queensboro Bridge

As the tram car is lowered to the ground, if you close your eyes you could almost be mistaken for feeling like a kid on a fairground attraction – complete with a ticket booth on arrival.

Tickets Please!

One of the first things you will see upon landing is the art-deco kiosk that served the tramway that carried commuters by rail across the 59th Street Bridge. Decommissioned in 1957, it was moved to the Island back in 2005 after a short stint at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum.

The quaint ticket booth is now the information kiosk

The kiosk now plays home to the Island’s visitors center, where for a small donation, you can purchase an island map and explore to your heart’s content. To see what it looked like in its original context, you can see its partner on the other end of the bridge, near the skyway tram entrance.

The other kiosk sits at the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge

The Island has played an important role in NYC history, and we were interested in learning more about its past. With only an hour or two to spare, we chose to go south from the tramway, to explore the new Cornell Campus, the historic laboratory and small pox hospital and the newer Four Freedoms State Park.

Cornell Tech Roosevelt Island
The ultra modern glass facade of Cornell

We take the river walk down the east side of the island, cooing at the wonderful views of the city scape. For some reason, you feel like you can appreciate it more looking at it than being in it. Well, some of the time anyway. When we spy the green paddocks of Cornell’s campus, we know it’s time to trek island, and follow the designated walkway to the first stop. The Strecker Memorial Laboratory, originally in use as the hospital laboratory, it later was converted into a power conversion substation and is currently still active.

The Strecker Memorial Laboratory, Roosevelt Island

A Ghostly Relic

Heading further south, we follow the trail which leads us to the Smallpox Hospital. Designed by James Renwick in the 1800s, who later went on to design St Patrick’s Cathedral on NYC’s famous 5th Avenue, this Gothic-revival wonder is now in ruins, but it’s beauty is still ever present.

The haunting remains of the Smallpox Hospital

We learn that during its worst outbreak, patients were transported to Roosevelt Island for isolation and treatment but it was closed in the early 1950s and fell into disrepair. With the outer walls still standing with the help of bracing, it sits behind a fence and is unable to be accessed by the general public. We’re a little disappointed—we had visions of exploring a haunted building close to Halloween—but we’re happy to read the accompanying plaques surrounding its’ grounds and take in the sight that is its ethereal ivory covered walls.

A memorial to the island’s namesake

Freedom and a view to the United Nations Building

Backing on to the smallpox hospital is the newer Four Freedoms Park. A beautiful tree line walk to the very south point of the island, today showing off a range of autumn foliage in transition, this park honors Franklin Roosevelt and his legacy. Situated almost parallel to the United Nations Building, following a path of quotes, sculptures and tributes, you can’t help but reflect on the freedoms we have been granted, be thankful for what you have, and appreciate the melting pot of cultures and histories that makes up New York City.

The United Nations building in the east of Manhattan

WHAT?

Roosevelt Island

WHERE?

In the East River between Manhattan and Queens.

HOW?

The iconic Roosevelt Island Tram accessible at East 59th Street and Second Avenue. You can also get the F subway, but where’s the fun in that?

Cost: $2.75 each way (with Metrocard)

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Michael lewis
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Good read, can’t wait to give this a try out it was on our list for next week. Actually well timed with it being Hallowe’en the day we are going :-).