About this listing
Former military base now transformed into a public park
Borough : Manhattan
Neighborhood : Governors Island
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...
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).
After the American victory and eventual creation of a federal government with the ratification of the Constitution, New York transferred control of Governors Island to the federal government for use as a defensive outpost. By the close of the 1790s, rebuilt and new forts were going up all around the harbor, funded by the national treasury. With Britain and France still threatening the young United States from across the Atlantic, from the Caribbean, and from the north, south and west of its own huge land mass, Americans felt nothing if not vulnerable -- New Yorkers perhaps more than most, having recently experienced seven years of occupation. The Army built Fort Jay, Castle Williams, and South Battery on Governors Island, Fort Wood on the plot of land that later welcomed the Statue of Liberty, Fort Gibson where Ellis Island would be built, Castle Clinton at the southern tip of Manhattan, and to defend other parts of the city's waterways, Fort Hamilton, Fort Wadsworth, Fort Lafayette, and many others. Multiple sophisticated fortifications protected the harbor and the city by the early 1800s, soon proving their worth -- though not in battle. During the War of 1812, the British attacked the far more lightly defended Baltimore and Washington D. C., advancing through the Chesapeake Bay and avoiding New York harbor and its formidable defenses.
On long, mostly flat Governors Island, the military designers who built Fort Jay were in effect building themselves both heights and increased surface area for maximum lethality. Ranger Shaver describes what attackers would face. "First you had to approach by boat being shot at the whole time by cannon with tennis-ball sized shot. The fort is surrounded by a glacis -- it’s a French term for a wide, flat killing grounds -- and from the parapet of the fort you've got the angles of the star points giving the defenders cover to shoot from both left and right. Remember, the fort isn't protecting anything on the inside; it's protecting the harbor. If you're attacking, you have to make it across open land, through the deep moat -- with people shooting across and down at you -- and then you have to climb the wall of the fort with ladders. You might make it, but it's going to be a costly exercise. Plus, Fort Jay on the north of the island, and Castle Williams on the south with its eight-foot thick walls, were connected by a trench, so the troops could re-supply themselves at will."
By the 1830s the early forts no longer provided adequate lines of defense for the city, so the Army began to deploy Governors Island for alternative uses. Housing its officer corps was one function. Serving as the region's arsenal was another. As Shaver explains, you wouldn't put an arsenal inside of an active fort, so Governors Island's increasing use over the second half of the nineteenth century as a storehouse for weapons indicates the end of its days as a fortification.
In the 1930s the officers and men of the First Army were headquartered on Governors Island, and the families of officers began to make their homes here. Tom and Dick Smothers, known to the world as the Smothers Brothers comedy team, were born at the base hospital in the late 1930s. Along with increasing residential use came the rudiments of community infrastructure: houses of worship, stores, a movie theater --even the once-lethal glacis was transformed into a golf course.
World War Two interrupted domestication of the island. Temporary barracks and basic training for local troops crowded its open spaces, and periodically reporters thronged to the island to cover the induction of high-profile recruits like the boxer Joe Louis. When the task of invading Normandy was assigned to the First Army, its Governors Island headquarters pulled up and moved to Bristol, England for the duration of the war.
The Army left Governors Island in 1966, but shortly thereafter the U.S. Coast Guard moved in. So the island continued its anomalous life as a military base in the middle of New York City.
New Yorkers moved quickly to reclaim Governors Island from the federal government after the Coast Guard left in 1996. Some of the key public players were President Clinton, Senator Moynihan, and Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, whose efforts led to the designation of the 22-acre National Monument, and also the sale of the island back to New York in April 2002. Deed restrictions require that, in addition to the National Monument, a minimum of forty acres of the island be dedicated as new park land. At least twenty of those forty acres must be contiguous, and at least twenty acres must be used for educational purposes. The beautiful esplanade with views onto the harbor must stay intact. The island must stay in public ownership. And no private housing is allowed. Because the northern area is a landmark district, the buildings and grounds in that stretch must be preserved.
The Regional Plan Association (RPA) is an important supporter of the island. RPA is a private group that since the 1920s has concerned itself with planning for the New York metropolitan region. Excited by the possibilities of a great new public space for New York, RPA galvanized a new consortium of individuals and groups called the Governors Island Alliance to turn their attention to securing the island for public-spirited uses. Places for play, recreation, education, the arts, and public affairs are all being talked about.
Ultimately the decisions about the island's future will be made by its two managers -- the National Park Service and GIPEC. The big tension, of course, is how to spur the kind of development that brings in revenue without giving away the island to private interests. One bad idea that's already been eliminated: casino gambling. The deed restrictions are one protection against a give-away, but the Governors Island Alliance is encouraging New Yorkers to pay attention to what is being proposed.
Will Governors Island be a "Central Park for New York's Harbor," as its citizen promoters suggest? Come visit the island, help create new ways of using its terrain, and log on to the websites of its planners to make your own hopes for the island known.
Ferries to Governors Island leave from the Battery Maritime Building, 11 South Street, at the foot of Whitehall. For more information about visiting the island, log onto the National Park Service website: www.nps.gov/gois.
For more information about the citizen's coalition the Governors Island Alliance, log onto: www.rpa.org/govisland.html
*Listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a National Historic Landmark District (1985)
*Designated a New York City Historic Landmark District (1996)
*Established as a National Monument (2003)
Interviews by Place Matters with Michael Shaver of the National Park Service, and Robert Pirani of the Regional Plan Association.
Booklets and other source material published by the National Park Service and the Governors Island Alliance.
On The Web
National Park Service website
Governors Island Alliance website
I spent many Thanksgivings at the Governor's Mansion on Governor's Island with my in laws in the late '80s. My uncle in law was the commander of Governor's Island, the last one I beleive. A New Yorker, I had never been there in my life and fell in love with the charm, the beauty and the sense of place and history. It's a gorgeous place, and notable for its architecture, history and as a spot of pure beauty. (Sept. 2007)
Governors Island is a special place -- filled with history and serenity and an overwhelming islandness. Its redevelopment poses a truly singular opportunity to think anew about New York and its harbor. The Island's massive stone forts -- complete with cannons, moats, and drawbridges -- are symbolic of a military tradition from the American Revolution to the Cold War. These monuments testify to the security needs of a small town at the edge of empire, and of a people breaking free of their colonial masters. Walking their ramparts will make visitors consider how New York's role in the world has changed. And how we address the vulnerability we feel today.
There are dozens of charming Victorian and federal-style buildings, all set among hundred year old shade trees and landscaped paths. These homes and offices tell of a small town life lived right in the heart of the great metropolis. Their cloistered intimacy evokes visions of a small college campus. Both central and apart from the buzz of Wall Street or the art scene in Brooklyn, Governors Island can become a unique urban chautauqua where students and scholars of all ages gather to share their ideas and inspirations.
The Island's shoreline boasts spectacular views of the Manhattan skyline, the Brooklyn port, and the Statue of Liberty. This unique perspective -- looking back at the City and its icons -- will transform New York's relationship to the water that surrounds us. While there are dozens of wonderful parks now rising on other shorelines, only Governors Island belongs to the Harbor as a whole. Filled with ball fields, playgrounds, and innovative arts and cultural venues, the Island will become a great destination for everybody -- a central park for the harbor.
Realizing these visions will be no small feat. Like so much of the waterfront, Governors Island is detached from the lives of ordinary citizens. It wasn't always so. In the nineteenth century, when boat travel was more norm than exception, the Island was a popular picnic destination. At least three legislative attempts were made to have the Island returned to the City for park use, all of which were defeated by its military occupants.
While the United States Army no longer stands in the way, there are other, perhaps even more difficult, challenges to the Island's reinvention as a great civic space. Its historic buildings need tenants that can ensure their long-term maintenance. New park spaces will require the public to invest millions of dollars.
But perhaps most critically, the Island needs the support of the public and its elected leaders. While it is just five minutes from either Manhattan or Brooklyn, there is no local constituency to rally to the Island's e. That means it is up to all of us to make sure we don't let this wonderful moment pass us by. Working together, we can reclaim the lsland, and make it New York's next great place.
The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a city-state entity, and the National Park Service are both preparing comprehensive plans for their respective portion of the Island. The plans are due to be completed in 2007.
For more information, go to: www.governorsislandalliance.org
www.govisland.com - GIPEC website
www.nps.gov/gois/ - Governors Island National Monument website