Roosevelt Island

Our latest weekend excursion took us across to Roosevelt Island. This teensy sliver of land sits in the middle of the East River, between Manhattan and Queens, and is worth visiting mainly because you get to go by cable car.

Roosevelt Island cable car

From what I could deduce from my research (aka this Wikipedia article), Roosevelt is the island’s fifth name since the Dutch bought it from the Indians back in 1637. Since the City of New York acquired it in 1828 it has been called home by the inmates of a penitentiary, workhouse, lunatic asylum, smallpox asylum, and various facilities for the chronically ill. The later part of the 20th century saw the rehabilitation of the island (if not its former residents), and it now boasts a collection of high-rise apartment blocks, with attendant amenities, and a park commemorating FDR.

FDR Four Freedoms Park

The island is approximately 2 miles long and 0.5 miles wide, with pedestrian paths most of the way along the river at either side. The west side of the island provides great views back towards Manhattan, with the spires of the Freedom Tower, Empire State and Chrysler Buildings clearly visible, not to mention ‘our’ section of the river by the Upper East Side.

UES from Roosevelt Island

I was interested in the eastern side of the island as the borough of Queens is a much less familiar sight, and what we saw was rather unexpected. Tom wasn’t especially taken by the sight of such industrial badlands, but I thought it was fascinating (especially given that other parts of Queens are quite lovely!).

Queens industry

The centre of the island is less interesting, and reminded me of the Barbican in London, with that expensive-flats-masquerading-as-a-council-estate sort of feel. The Barbican impression was strengthened further when we came across the lovely little Chapel of the Good Shepherd (consecrated in 1889), one of the island’s few remaining historic buildings, nestled in a ring of modern constructions.

Good Shepherd chapel on Roosevelt Island

All in all this was a fun place to wander on a sunny afternoon. I’m not entirely sure I’d like to live there – other than the cable car (or tramway as it’s known locally), there is a subway stop, and a road bridge on the Queens side, but it somehow feels remote (and I can’t imagine what it was like there when Hurricane Sandy hit last October). So despite the obvious appeal of aerial commuting I don’t think we’ll be moving just yet.

Queensboro bridge from the Roosevelt Island tramway

2 thoughts on “Roosevelt Island

  1. What a great report, and fantastic photos. I was there years ago and fell in love with the island. And it inspired me to write my latest non-fiction book: Island of the Damned (by Alix Kirsta) Its just out this week on as an e-book, and focuses on a very famous scandal involving the mafia and the island’s penitentiary back in 1934. The whole history of the place is just incredible.


    • Thanks Alix, and good luck with the book. I was fascinated to discover that the island had such a dark past, and certain areas did feel slightly spooky even on a bright summer day – it must be quite something on a dark wintry night, especially once you know what went on there!


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