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Roosevelt Island, NYC's Best Kept Secret

Updated on December 8, 2014

Morning Light, a Courtyard on Roosevelt Island

Manhattan Park is a popular bargain location for family living on Roosevelt Island.
Manhattan Park is a popular bargain location for family living on Roosevelt Island. | Source

Have You Been There?

If you're like most, even locals, you never set foot on Roosevelt Island in New York City. If you've even heard of it, you're probably not even sure where it is.

Come long on an online tour with me and share New York City's best kept secret neighborhood.

Roosevelt Island's community is an odd one. Although it's smack in the middle of New York City and has received gobs of local press recently, only a tiny percentage of New Yorkers have ever touched land here.

There's a debate in the local community about how best to keep it that way.

I've lived on Roosevelt Island, Manhattan's little island, for almost twenty-five years. It's a community where local pride inspires speakers at public meetings to introduce themselves by attaching their longevity.

"I'm John Smith, 32 years on Roosevelt Island."

At 25, I'm considered I'm a newcomer.

Going to Manhattan's Big Island

Back in the early '90s when we were both new residents on Roosevelt Island and the place seemed remote and quaint, my friend Steve, a sports producer with NBC, used to say we were "going to the big island" when we climbed on the tram or went down the long escalators for one stop on the Q train.

Both of Manhattan's developed islands are long, rocky slivers surrounded by the mixing tides of straits and estuaries (and one fjord mistakenly called the Hudson River), erroneously called "rivers", pushing and pulling tides on either side.

But you've probably heard a lot more about the bigger of the two, the one with Broadway, Wall Street, Central Park and panic attacks.

Roosevelt is Manhattan's little island, home to the Roosevelt Island Tram, a vibrant international community, Four Freedoms Park (dedicated to FDR), and the soon to be constructed Cornell NYC Tech campus, a school charged with doing nothing less than transforming New York's tech economy for the 21st Century.

The accompanying photo, Morning Light, copyright local photographer Deborah Julian, shows a quiet residential courtyard on Roosevelt Island.

Old Roosevelt Island Tram
Old Roosevelt Island Tram

Historical Roosevelt Island - Images of America

An historical perspective on Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island (Images of America)
Roosevelt Island (Images of America)

Local historian, Judith Berdy and members of the Historical Society, put together this book of vintage photographs, representing the island's shifting uses.

You can also buy it at the visitor center near the tram station, set up in an abondoned street car station she rescued for the purpose.


Roosevelt Island New York

A Personal Point of View

Above: the original, iconic Roosevelt Island Tram, photography by Deborah Julian, lifts off toward "the big island" alongside the Queensboro Bridge.

Known during colonial times as "Hog Island," after the farm that occupied it, the island was also called Blackwell's and Welfare Island before being renamed in honor of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Roosevelt, New York's governor on his way to be the transformative president that led the nation out of the Great Depression and through most of World War II - while confined much of the time to a wheelchair.

In honor of Roosevelt, the island's original residential communities were among the first in the world to be steadfastly barrier free.

Recognized as one of the last undeveloped real estate tracts in New York, the mission was to build a "city of tomorrow" with a greatly reduced automobile footprint, solar powered buses, streets and sidewalks made gentle with z-bricks in place of asphalt, and haven for New Yorkers from every economic strata.

The future has flattened much of that ideal, however, and Roosevelt Island residents have turned their attention more toward the future and away from a heritage that has been fumbled by government as the originating passions faded into the bureaucratic maze.

Activist Community

Impassioned citizen involvement saved the Roosevelt Island Tram from being dismantled after the subway opened, and the astonishing success of the community-wide vacuum tube garbage disposal system (AVAC) continues with all new buildings so far, but other features have not fared as well.

With the community's day to day management handed off by the city to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC), essentially a patronage dump for successive state administrations, the historic downtown core totters on the edge of becoming a slum and the all important but neglected seawall, recently battered by Hurricane Sandy, is an invitation to disaster while local politicians dither over who's at fault and who should fix it.

Roosevelt Island is a dynamic environment in tradition.

Neglected by government but blessed with passionate activists wanting to preserve it as one of the best neighborhoods in New York, it's a study in contrasts. The future is being shaped here.

These and what follows are my personal views as an observer for more than two decades.

Flavor of Daily Life on Roosevelt Island

Street Photography, Roosevelt Island, Pictures of New York
Street Photography, Roosevelt Island, Pictures of New York | Source

Roosevelt Island New York City, A Morning Routine

Roosevelt Island Red Bus

Street photography artist Deborah Julian created this impression, Morning Routine, Roosevelt Island, from pictures shot on a spring morning.

A man follows his normal trail toward the waterfront, passing Roosevelt Island's public school. One of the community's iconic red buses passes behind him on Main Street, the only street in town.

When I first arrived on Roosevelt Island in 1990, the buses were free and considered a necessity to support a community with long walking distances to many residential buildings from the tram and subway.

The Circleline Tour Passes Roosevelt Island

Never once did I imagine I'd be living in a tourist attraction.
Never once did I imagine I'd be living in a tourist attraction. | Source

Living In A Tourist Attraction

"On your right is Roosevelt Island..."

Even if your were recently a tourist here yourself and you know that New York City is one of the most visited places in the world, there really is nothing quite like being watched by people from around the country and the world as their boat cruises by for a close look, it's loudspeaker explaining the history of your community.

And it's not like Central Park, where you're never one-hundred percent sure who's a tourist and who isn't. All of those people in the bright colored clothes with rosy complexions really are from out of town.

The separation is interesting. I've always expected the Circle Line passengers to wave, but they don't.

Roosevelt Island has a promenade that runs along the water, and many of us are out walking, reading, sunbathing and sipping Starbucks by the water. But it's sort of like being a still life for folks from Nebraska.

Do we really come off rude as some visitors claim? (Friends upstate refer to Parisians as "New Yorkers with an accent.")

Is the distance respectful or protective?

Beneath the glitter, do they think we're really the condemned inhabitants of Sodom-on-the-Hudson?

A Local Family on a Winter Day

Who knew Ms. Frosty T. Snowman shopped Victoria's Secret?
Who knew Ms. Frosty T. Snowman shopped Victoria's Secret? | Source

Frosty The Snowman Is A Resident on Roosevelt Island Local

Frosty T. Snowman and Family

A little known fact is that, even though one-time local residents Buddy Hackett and Grampa Al Lewis are gone, we still have the famous Frosty T. Snowman family living in Manhattan Park on Roosevelt Island.

Family life is important here. We have a much higher percentage of space given to parks, playgrounds and ball fields than other communities, making it ideal for kids, and Roosevelt Island is among the safest communities in the city.

Concerned about the family being thought to be out of fashion or stodgy, Mrs. Snowman insisted on being photographed with her Victoria's Secret bag.

A Relic Lost, the Once Remote South Tip

On a patch smoothed after the factories were demolished, we used to get together here very 4th of July to watch the Macy's fireworks right overhead.
On a patch smoothed after the factories were demolished, we used to get together here very 4th of July to watch the Macy's fireworks right overhead. | Source

The Once Undeveloped South End of Roosevelt Island

Now Four Freedoms Park

From the time the island was dedicated to the memory of our late president, the plan always was to build a park in tribute at the southern extremity when the land tapers into the East River, just across from the United Nations.

Today, Four Freedoms Park is open, and this slope where the community gathered to watch Fourth of July fireworks directly overhead is gone forever.

The undeveloped land seen here is not as undeveloped as it might seem.

In the background, you can see the remains of a partially restored smallpox hospital. What used to be in the foreground were factories that took advantage of this prime riverside location for shipping and water supplies.

In paintings as recent as those of Edward Hopper and in photographs, you can see the factories packed close together at the shore.

Just a year ago, the trail to the left was where I went running. It was great to get off-road in the middle of the metropolis, jogging by flocks of waterfowl and the city pollution seeming deceptively far away. Friends still resent having a favorite biking trail taken away.

Four Freedoms Park

Dedicated to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Dedicated to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt | Source

As It Is Today, Four Freedoms Park

On a spring morning, with the new plantings of trees just beginning to come out of hibernation, the southern tip of Roosevelt Island now looks like this, a park pointing like an arrow in the water near the United Nations.

Historic Lighthouse in Hell Gate


Lighthouse Park and Hellgate, North Tip of Roosevelt Island

History and A Gentle Park

At the north end, an historic lighthouse that once helped guide craft through the treacherous currents in what is known as Hell Gate.

Tidal surges being pushed and pulled along the Harlem River collide with those coming down Long Island Sound. Concerns were greater before the landmass in the middle was blasted into a smaller chunk, taking our oyster beds with it.

For more than a year after Hurricane Sandy, damages keep visitors away from the historic lighthouse and the observation point that looks straight into the tidal surges of Hell Gate.

Now, tugs haul traffic regularly through the channel. Occasionally, a boat will lose the battle.

One collided into the seawall a few years back, but it's rare, these days.

Across the East River is Carl Shurz Park with Gracie Mansion, the Mayor's official residence tucked inside. Northward is Harlem and, then, the Bronx.

To the east is Hallet's Cove in Astoria, Queens, just south of where the East River reaches out to meet Long Island Sound.

Sunset Over Manhattan

Looking downriver from Roosevelt Island
Looking downriver from Roosevelt Island

From Roosevelt Island: A Sunset Over Manhattan

Roosevelt Island in NYC

Not often do others think of New York City as a place of natural beauty, but we do.This summer sunset over Manhattan, seen from the Roosevelt Island Promenade, speaks for itself.

© 2011 David Stone

What do you think?

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    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Brite-Ideas: You'd undergo a renaissance, Barbara. So much to stimulate you and it goes on sever days a week.

    • Brite-Ideas profile image

      Barbara Tremblay Cipak 

      4 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      David, this is my kind of place - I would love to visit, and even live here - not knowing New York very well, this was very interesting - what a lovely place you live in, this city girl would be happy here

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @smine27: Brooklyn is about a hundred times bigger and generally considered the part of New York where things are happening and where the best places to live are. Brooklyn could give you a full week of walking around, easy. My neighborhood on Roosevelt Island you can do in less than a day.Thanks for commenting, Shinichi.

    • smine27 profile image

      Shinichi Mine 

      4 years ago from Tokyo, Japan

      I've been to New York several times but never been to this area. I would love to visit this area as well as Brooklyn.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @fullofshoes: I don't know how to say this except directly, but yo weren't on Roosevelt Island. Circque was on Randall's Island, a sister Island up the river, closer to the Bronx and the land where the Triborough Bridge (RFK now) is anchored. The show was never on Roosevelt. We're to hard to get to.Thanks, anyway.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Believe it or not I've been to Roosevelt Island! My daughter and I attended a performance of Circque du Soleil held there maybe 10 years ago? :)

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @meggingmad: Feels that way, sometimes.

    • meggingmad profile image


      4 years ago

      Oh....should have said I`ve been there on vacation from Scotland.

    • meggingmad profile image


      4 years ago

      Love it! An oasis of calm in a maelstrom of madness.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Merrci: It really is the best of all possibilities here in New York. Thanks, Merry.

    • Merrci profile image

      Merry Citarella 

      4 years ago from Oregon's Southern Coast

      Looks like a lovely place to call home! It's so interesting to read about it! Another great lens.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      @Nancy Hardin: Youre right, Nancy. Some changes are so big and strong, we just watch.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Dave, I enjoyed my trip to Roosevelt Island through your lens. Thank you for sharing, its certainly worth seeing. Sounds like you love it! :)

    • Nancy Hardin profile image

      Nancy Carol Brown Hardin 

      4 years ago from Las Vegas, NV

      I get my vicarious travels through your lenses, and I loved this trip through Roosevelt Island. It sounds like a fascinating place to be, and I know you're happy there. Inevitably though, change comes to the things we love. The last time I returned to my hometown in Indiana, I was disappointed to see all the changes. Of course, they were more noticeable to me since I didn't see them gradually change. Keep your Island as it is as long as you can.

    • David Stone1 profile imageAUTHOR

      David Stone 

      5 years ago from New York City

      @anonymous: As far as we're concerned as New Yorkers, it's the best of all alternatives, Tipi. I really need to update the article, by the way; so, thanks for the nudge.

    • puerdycat lm profile image

      puerdycat lm 

      7 years ago

      Looks like a great place to live ... and visit! Never knew about it, thanks.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 

      7 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Beautiful photos.. Blessed.

    • mbgphoto profile image

      Mary Beth Granger 

      7 years ago from O'Fallon, Missouri, USA

      Beautiful photos.. Blessed. Added to my United States Angel lens

    • MarianaFargasch profile image


      7 years ago

      oooh I love Roosevelt Island! I used to drive up there so many times :) I used to live across from it in Queens and every time I went to Astoria Park i'd see Roosevelt Island. It's a great little island indeed! Lovely lens :)


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