Places that Matter

Governors Island

click on image for slideshow
Liggett Hall and Early Bird Memorial, NYSDED/Darren McGee
Liggett Hall and Early Bird Memorial, NYSDED/Darren McGee
Fort Jay entrance, GIPEC
Nolan Park, GIPEC
Admirals Quarters, NYSDED/Darren McGee
View of Manhattan, GIPEC
Former military base now transformed into a public park
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Place Matters Profile

Governors Island is located in New York harbor between the southern ferry slips of Manhattan and the Red Hook shipyards of Brooklyn. Its commanding position on the harbor recommended it to the English early on as a defensive military post. In about 1800, its American owners formalized its use for the U.S. Army, first constructing several forts, and later turning the island into an arsenal and military base. When the army left in 1966, the US Coast Guard moved in, staying until 1996. In 2002/03, a deal previously struck by Senator Moynihan and President Clinton to return Governors Island to the people of New York was clinched. In a marvelous turn of events, much of the island's lovely acreage has been saved for public use, and its public stewards are asking us what kind of place we want it to be. Governors Island is partially open to the public, with seasonal ferry service from summer to fall.

It's partly up to the National Park Service to help New York transform Governors Island from a military base to a public amenity. The Park Service directly controls 22 acres of the island that were designated a National Monument and deeded to the Park Service. But Park Service rangers also help guide the public through the island's larger landmark district, covering about half of the 172-acre land mass, and created in the 1990s when the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission put this historic area under its protection. National Park Service Ranger Michael Shaver describes the island's shape as an ice cream cone. The northern portion -- with its historically evocative buildings and landscapes -- forms the ice cream. The southern portion forming the cone has more open land, and fewer buildings that are valued for their architecture or history. So it's the southern part that's available for new development, ball fields, and park spaces. The Governors Island Preservation and Development Corporation, or GIPEC -- a public development corporation controlled jointly by New York City and New York State -- controls all but the Park Service's 22 acres of National Monument.

Normally a new park of this size and complexity would take years to open. But since its transition to public ownership in 2003, Governors Island has been opening slowly but steadily, with the Park Service and GIPEC controlling the pace and encouraging New Yorkers to get used to their new territory. Ferry service from Manhattan to Governors Island now runs regularly from summer to fall, welcoming people to tour selected areas, attend special events, and soak up the sun and views along a stretch of harbor front esplanade. Behind the scenes, GIPEC and the Park Service are stabilizing aging buildings, and collaborating with public and private groups on long-term development of the island.

What would become Governors Island was a seasonal oystering and nut-gathering grounds for the Canarsee Indians, who lost their access to the island to the Dutch in the 1630s. By the close of the 1600s, British colonial governors had rights to the fertile patch, using it as residence, as private hunting grounds, and at other times as income-producing rental property. Once named for its nut trees (in Canarsee, Pagganck, in Dutch, Nooten), the place came to be called "The Governor's Island," and over time simply Governors Island. Military use of the island began in small measure in the mid-1700s, and the massive British occupation of New York during the Revolutionary War kept its defensive advantages for the Crown. When the British fleet sailed into New York harbor in 1776 with over 400 ships carrying 30,000 troops, American cannon briefly shot at them from earthworks constructed on Governors Island, providing cover for the retreat of General Washington and his troops. So many British ships crowded the harbor that a farmer from Staten Island is said to have quipped that it appeared the forest had returned to these shores (by this point deforestation was well advanced).