By Emma Jones
Published Mar 8th, 2006
Standing on the 147 acres of Roosevelt Island in the middle of the East river feels like viewing Manhattan in a super sized snow globe. The thin strip of land may only be one stop further on the subway but it is a whole world away from the hectic streets of Manhattan.
The best way to reach the island is to take the tram from 2nd avenue and 59th street. This iconic transportation, which has appeared in many films including Spider man and is featured in the King Kong ride at Universal studios, opened in 1976 and is the only aerial commuter tram in the country
The two cabins run to and fro every 15mins from 6am to 2.30am making 115 trips a day. The scenic journey across the East river takes just 4 minutes and peaks to a height of 250ft giving great views of the city. It is popular with tourists, but equally many commuters still choose to travel this way rather than take the subway which now serves the island.
Roosevelt Island is 2 miles long and 800 feet at its widest point and it easy to explore by foot. Otherwise there is a bus service which runs regularly around the island. There are sports fields, tennis courts and plenty of recreational activities to get involved in. You can also visit a number of historical sights on the island. The nicest thing to do though is just to take a stroll around its perimeter, admire the views of Manhattan and the East river and enjoy the sense of space that being outside the city gives.
The island was originally called Minnahonock (which means Long Island) by the indigenous Indians. After colonization it was bought by the Dutch and used to raise hogs where its next name Hogs Island came from. When Captain John Manning took over the island he named it after himself - Manning Island - until it was passed on to his son in law Robert Blackwell and became Blackwell Island. The oldest structure still remaining on the island today is the wooden Blackwell house which was built in 1796. The island stayed in their family for 150 years before New York City bought it from them for $32,500.
A vast penitentiary was built just south of where the tram stop sits today and was the first of many institutions that the island housed. At the north of the island America's first "Municipal Lunatic Asylum" was built in 1839, including the octagonal tower which still stands today. It was considered one of New York's greatest buildings and was even visited by Charles Dickens who talked about it in his American Notes. Workhouses, a smallpox hospital and prisons were also built on the island. In the late 19th century convicts on the island built a 50ft lighthouse which still remains today at the northern tip. It was designed by the Irish architect James Renwick Jr who designed St Patrick's cathedral and is on the national register of historic places.
In the 1920s the island was given the name Welfare Island to reflect its role as a home for the ill and the outcast. Its final name change was made in 1973 in anticipation of building a memorial to President Roosevelt. The memorial was never built but the island retained its name
Nowadays Roosevelt Island still has a large hospital at the south end but the majority of the area is made up of residential apartments. The City of New York deeded the island to the State of New York for 99 years and in the 80s and 90s the land was developed and new apartments are still being built. Around 9500 people live on the island including many foreign diplomats due to its proximity to the UN on the East side of Manhattan.
From the island you can hear the buzz of Manhattan and the constant frenetic noise that it generates. Although there are a lot of apartment buildings there is still a great sense of space and calmness on the island which is a relaxing contrast to hectic city life. Visit the island for an afternoon if purely for the tram ride over and a chance to escape from everyday life.