Close Up On: Roosevelt Island


When Roosevelt Island comes to mind, most people think of the quaint Tramway cable car or the spooky ruins of the smallpox hospital, which appeared in the recent blockbuster Spider-Man. But the dynamic social and cultural drama of Roosevelt Island has remained much more elusive. In the 1960s, city planner Ed Logue had a dream: to create a community with as much social, economic, and demographic diversity as possible on an island full of green lawns, ballparks, playgrounds, community centers, and stunning views. The strange thing is that it has worked, and lasted. The 2.5-mile-long, 800-foot-wide island has an enormous range of housing, including everything from section 8 projects to fair-market luxury buildings to a Mitchell-Lama co-op and rentals. In addition, one rental building has been catering mostly to United Nations employees for two decades, resulting in an island population of 35 percent foreign nationals. “Our soccer and Little League teams are created by kids from all over the world,” said Matthew Katz, 20-year-long island resident and president of Roosevelt Island Residents Association. “We have big island parties and events each year for the Chinese New Year, African American Month in February, a slew of Korean celebrations, and more.” To this day, urban planners come from all over the world to study the experiment, Katz said.

Location: The East River, between the Upper East Side and Astoria, Queens

Boundaries: Coler Hospital at the island’s north end, Goldwater Hospital at its southern point

Main Drag: Main Street was the only street on the island for 14 years until River Road was developed in 1989, and it remains the center of all Roosevelt Island life. The island’s only deli, dry cleaner, bank, church, pizza parlor, liquor store, diner, and sports bar are found there.

Population: 9500

Ethnic Makeup: 48 percent white; 27 percent African American; 14 percent Latino; 11 percent Asian

Mass Transit: Tramway located at 59th Street and Second Avenue, F train, Q-102 bus

Noted For: The Tramway, promenades, the meditation steps at the center of the island, parks, accessibility to the handicapped, and low crime rate. The Center of Urban History and Ecology designated the island “Tree City” this year.

Average Rent: Studio, $700 to $850; one-bedroom, $950 to $1150; two-bedroom, $1200 to $1500. The Eastwood building offers housing at a base rate or 30 percent of the renter’s income (whichever is higher) starting at $513 for a studio, $741 for a one-bedroom, and $914 for a two-bedroom. Waiting lists are long all over the island, but many renters sublet to young tenants at reasonable prices.

Average Price to Buy: Rivercross, a Mitchell-Lama co-op located at 531 Main Street, is the only building on the island that offers apartments for sale—and they are gorgeous and cheap. Here, the waiting list is also long, and owners can’t sell for more than a 10 percent profit.

Cultural Institutions: The Roosevelt Island Historical Society; the Main Street Theater and Dance Alliance, at 548 Main Street; and the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association, at 527 Main Street

Landmarks: Blackwell House, a 250-year-old farmhouse at 500 Main Street; the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, built in 1889, at 543 Main Street; the Octagon, the 160-year-old ruin of the Paupers Insane Asylum, at the northern end of the island; and the 130-year-old lighthouse, located at the northern tip

Notable Events: On the Fourth of July, 4000 chairs are set up on south point for one of the best views of the Macy’s fireworks.

Famous Residents: Kofi Annan, Al Lewis (Grandpa Munster on The Munsters), and Buddy Hackett. In 1927, Mae West was incarcerated for 10 days on the island, then called “Welfare Island,” for “crude improvisations” in her first play, Sex, produced on Broadway.

Best Restaurant: The Capri Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant at 532 Main Street offers what may be the city’s lightest, thinnest-crusted, nice and saucy slice.

Best Bar: Julie’s Back Page sports bar at 513 Main Street, owned and operated by Julie Palermo, president of the Roosevelt Island Chamber of Commerce

Local Politicians: Councilman Gifford Miller, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Field, Assemblyman Pete Grannis, State Senator José M. Serrano, and Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney—all Democrats

Crime Stats: As of June 31, detectives at the 114th precinct reported no homicides for this year nor for this time last year; 1 rape, up from 0 last year; 2 robberies, down from 5 last year; 6 felonious assaults, compared to 7 last year; and 5 burglaries, up from 3 last year.

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting the Village Voice and our advertisers.