Places that Matter

Roosevelt Island

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Roosevelt Island view from Manhattan, Chester Burger
Roosevelt Island view from Manhattan, Chester Burger
Visitor Kiosk with Tram, Courtesy of Judith Berdy
Visitor Kiosk close-up, Courtesy of Judith Berdy
Roosevelt Island view from Manhattan, Courtesy of Judith Berdy
Historic and modern buildings mark the history of this island
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Place Matters Profile

A unique planned community on the East River, Roosevelt Island incorporated elements from its long history into a cutting-edge late 1960s urban design. Today it combines a mix of market and affordable housing, historic landmark buildings, parkland, and incomparable views of the East River and the rest of the city in a small 147-acre package.

Roosevelt Island’s name dates only to 1973, as it was renamed in its transformation into a residential community. It was Minnahanonck to native New Yorkers, Hogs Island in Dutch New Amsterdam, and Blackwell’s Island for more than two centuries, named after the British family who owned the island from 1686. In 1821 the family sold the island to the City of New York, which found it a fit place to isolate poor, ill, and troubled New Yorkers. Hospitals, insane asylums, and prisons would dominate the landscape for more than one hundred years. Nineteenth century writers including Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly visited the island and observed appaling conditions at its penitentiary and lunatic asylum. Scandals continued to rock the island through 1921, when the City changed the island’s name to Welfare Island in an effort to improve its image.

In 1968, when Mayor John V. Lindsay appointed a committee to study possible uses for the island, it seemed largely devoid of people. As late as the 1940s, the island’s institutions had been home to as many as ten thousand people. By the ‘60s, only two hospitals and the Fire Department’s training school remained active among the remains of abandoned city institutions. Among the possibilities raised for the island’s redevelopment were an amusement park, prisons, a nuclear power plant, or a housing development. New York City was then in the grips of what was seen as a “housing crisis”; there were not enough places for people to live, but also not enough room to build new homes without displacing others. Given this scenario, the almost 150 acres of land on the East River began to look very attractive.