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Roosevelt Island – Neighborhood Series

Roosevelt Island – A quiet and picturesque neighborhood with a fascinating history, it offers a unique combination of new development and preserved history. 

Geography

As a 147-acre island, Roosevelt Island’s four boundaries are water: East River on all sides. On the west are Manhattan neighborhoods of Upper East Side, Lenox Hill, and Midtown East; while Queens neighborhoods of Dutch Kills and Hunters Point are on the east. Roosevelt Island is connected to Queens via the Roosevelt Island Bridge and is part of the Manhattan borough.

History

Roosevelt Island has quite an interesting history. It was occupied by the natives for centuries, possibly millennia. The Dutch bought it in 1637 and used it for farming (prominently hogs). The island was acquired by an English owner (after the surrender), Captain John Manning, in 1666. After his death, it was passed on to his son-in-law, Robert Blackwell in 1686, and remained in the family line till it was purchased by New York City to create rehabilitation institutions

In chronological order, a prison (1832), a lunatic asylum (1841), a hospital (1849), NYC’s first almshouses (charitable houses in 1850), a minimum-security workhouse (1850), and another hospital (1857) were built on the island. These historically significant constructions gave Roosevelt Island its “welfare” roots. It was also where the country’s first smallpox island was built. More hospitals were built on the island in the 19th century, but by the 1970s, the island started turning into a residential neighborhood of the city. It was connected to the subway in 1989.

In the last three decades, Roosevelt Island has seen major reforms, renovations, and new constructions. It also became the venue for some political events. 

Origin Of The Name

Roosevelt Island has seen several different names. The natives called it Minnehanonck, which either means Long Island (a comment on its geography) or “it’s nice to be on the island.” When the Dutch bought it from the natives, they named it Hogs Island (Varken Eylandt in Dutch) because it was used for farming hogs (among other food-related livestock). After the Dutch surrendered to the English, the island was bought by an English Captain who named it Manning Island after himself, and after his passing, it went to his son-in-law (via Manning’s step-daughter – as inheritance) and got the new name Blackwell Island

The name stuck well after the island’s acquisition by the city and got its new name, Welfare Island, in 1921. Finally, in 1971, it got the name it still carries – Roosevelt Island. 

Main Attractions Of The Neighborhood

Roosevelt Island is home to relatively few but good food establishments and bars.

Granny Annie’s Bar & Kitchen(425 Main St): An Irish bar and restaurant with a simple menu and a small but comprehensive drink collection. 

NISI (549 Main St): The restaurant boasts a central location on the island and is well known for its great food, but the service doesn’t get a lot of positive light.

Piccolo Trattoria Ristorante Pizzeria (455 Main St): It can be considered the premier pizza place in the neighborhood. But it also offers a great view. 

Panorama Room (22 N Loop Rd): It’s a beautiful place to eat and offers gorgeous views. It offers oysters and small plates (Seafood), but more people come here for the view than for the food.

The Cafe at Cornell Tech (2 W Loop Rd): It’s well known for its menu, cleanliness, and affordable prices.

The island’s history can be experienced through some of its iconic buildings and main attractions.

Blackwell (House500 Main St): It was built in 1796 by the great-grandson of the individual for whom the island was named. It’s one of the few buildings from the 18th century to survive.

The Octagon (888 Main St): It’s an impressive 1834 octagonal building that once marked the entrance to the island’s lunatic asylum and is now part of the apartment building entrance.

Strecker Memorial Laboratory (Southpoint Park): This building has an important place, not just in the island’s history but scientific history as well. It was built as the first institution of its kind (pathological and bacteriological research) in 1892 in the country and was associated with the City Hospital. 

Chapel of the Good Shepherd (543 Main St): It’s a beautiful Episcopal church that was built in 1888. 

Blackwell Island Light (Lighthouse Park, 910 Main St): The 15-meter tall Lighthouse created using the city’s own stone is another major landmark structure in the neighborhood.

Some major attractions of the neighborhood include:

Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park(1 FDR Four Freedoms Park): It’s a relatively new, four-acre public park. It was designed in 1974 but was created in 2012. 

Lighthouse Park (910 Main St): The name Lighthouse Park refers to the Lighthouse that was built on the Northern tip of the island in 1872, using the stone quarried in the island itself. 

Smallpox Memorial Hospital (E Rd): It was built in 1856 and was the first hospital dedicated to smallpox patients in the country. It later became a maternity and charity hospital training school. It’s one of the landmarked ruins in the neighborhood. 

Roosevelt Island Tramway (E 60 St &2 Av): The tramway was originally established as a temporary connection between the island and the Upper East Side neighborhood in Manhattan, but even after the subway, the tramway just stayed there. It was the first aerial tramway in the US when it was established in 1976. 

Roosevelt Island Ferry (E Main St): Taking a Roosevelt Island Ferry is a slower but way more picturesque way to travel. 

What Is Roosevelt Island Known For?

  • Its aerial tram connecting the island to Midtown East, hovering 250 feet above the ground
  • Its unique history and association with hospitals, lunatic asylums, and penitentiaries.
  • A lot of green space and a cherry-tree walk.
  • The campus of an Ivy League university (Cornell).  
  • Nellie Bly’s famous asylum exposé in the late 1800s. 

Population 

Relatively recent estimates put the population of this NYC neighborhood at 14,000. 

Interesting Facts About Roosevelt Island

  • The first exclusive smallpox hospital in the US was built on Roosevelt Island. 

Roosevelt Island has NYC’s only and one of the largest pneumatic garbage collection systems in the world.