Admitting you live on Roosevelt Island is a great conversation-starter. You’ll hear, “I thought that was just a park,” “How do you get there?” (swim!), and, of course, “Is it true they don’t allow dogs?” (a myth: the island itself does, but most residents’ leases do not).
Called “Welfare Island” until 1973, when New York institutions including almshouses, an insane asylum and a state penitentiary gave way to modern high-rises, RI is currently home to a curious mix of UN employees and their families, chronic-care patients of Coler-Goldwater Memorial Hospital, elderly longtime residents, and young New Yorkers looking for a good deal. Although technically a part of Manhattan, RI lacks the bustle and buzz that most people associate with life in the city. But for peace and quiet, ample green space, and affordable modern apartments with fantastic skyline views, Roosevelt Island is a curiosity worth checking out.
Boundaries: Two miles long and only 800 feet across at its widest point, Roosevelt Island lies in the East River, 300 yards away from FDR Drive.
Transportation: Until 1989 the ski gondola–style Roosevelt Island Tram was the only direct way to get here from Manhattan. Today the F train stops here on its way to and from Queens, but the Tram still carries commuters and joyriding tourists across the river several times an hour (the station-to-station trip takes less than 5 minutes). The Q102 bus makes a loop over the RI Bridge and back to Astoria, stopping at the Tram and subway stations and several other points on the Island. Cars originating in Manhattan must take the Queensboro Bridge and loop through Long Island City to get here (but you’re better off taking mass transit; parking on RI is tricky).
Once you’ve docked there’s no reason not to walk; but for a quarter, you can ride to your destination on one of the iconic red buses that run in a loop around the Island.
Main Drags: Roosevelt Island’s Main Street earns its designation by default. Along this eerily quiet, low-traffic stretch you’ll find all the New York basics: deli, dry cleaners, Chinese restaurant, branch library, pizzeria, flower shop, hair salon, bank, liquor store, Gristede’s.
Average Price to Rent: Most of the apartments on Roosevelt Island are Mitchell-Lama rentals, which means to qualify you will need to meet income limitations-and, more importantly, you will need to be on a waiting list already. If you’re just now thinking about moving, “luxury” market-rate rentals are available in the Manhattan Park complex: a one-bedroom goes for $1,695 to $1,995 (for a flexible two-bedroom); two-bedroom, $1,995 to $2,695 (for a flexible three-bedroom);, flexible four-bedroom, $3,395.
Average Price to Buy: Only one of the Island’s housing complexes offers co-op apartments, but, like many of the Island’s rental complexes, Rivercross co-ops are state-subsidized under Mitchell-Lama regulations, and the waiting list is long closed.
Shops: If you’re looking to spend money, take the tram back to Bloomingdale’s Country—the pickings are slim in this neighborhood.
Green Spaces: RI has this in spades. The promenades along the river are popular for romantic strolls and exercise; artsy types sprawl on Meditation Steps and gaze across the water at the skyscrapers. Locals love to fish near the Lighthouse at the Island’s northern tip, but pregnant women are advised not to eat anything they catch. On fair-weather weekends the outdoor-play fields teem with preteen soccer players, and permit-holding adults frequent the Octagon Park tennis courts and the Sportspark indoor complex at the southern end of the Island.
Cultural Institutions: Roosevelt Island has a few, including the Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance and the RI Youth Program; the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association gallery exhibits local artists’ work. The RI Historical Society sponsors occasional events and fundraisers (including, in April, a RI-themed film festival).
Restaurants/Bars: Trellis restaurant on Main Street gets high marks from Islanders, which is fortunate, since it’s the only game in town. As for nightlife, there is one “sports café,” with a sign on the door warning potential customers, “YOU MUST BE 24 AND PROVE IT TO BE IN THIS BAR!” In other words, if you want the City that Never Sleeps to extend up to your door, Roosevelt Island is probably not for you.
Happenings: A farmer’s market turns the area under the Roosevelt Island Bridge into a busy shopping hub every Saturday. The future of Southpoint Park is perpetually up in the air, but for now it is opened occasionally for July 4th fireworks-viewing and summer movie screenings.
Local Landmarks: Blackwell House, built in 1796, is the oldest structure on the Island; it’s drooping a little but still striking. History and architecture buffs love the built-by-convicts 19th-century Lighthouse and the Good Shepherd Chapel on Main Street (still the center of worship for the Island’s Christian denominations).
Also something of a “landmark” is RI’s unique garbage-disposal system, an underground network of automated vacuum tubes that whisk waste away. No other residential community in the country has such a system, although one much like it keeps Disney World clean.
Famous Residents: Al “Grandpa Munster” Lewis calls Roosevelt Island home, and other celebrities can often be spotted taking advantage of the island’s ideal filming conditions (recent visitors included Sean Penn and Jennifer Connelly). Local lore says Emma Goldman and Mae West both did time in Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary.
Politicians: City Council speaker (and mayoral hopeful) Gifford Miller is a local boy; his mother stumps for him outside the subway station. Island politics are handled, with much controversy, by the Roosevelt Island Operating Committee, a nine-member board of dDirectors appointed by the Governor. Recent attempts by the RIOC to improve the red bus service had the Island’s longtime residents preparing tar and feathers and writing outraged letters to the community newspaper.
Crime Stats: Although officially part of the NYPD’s 114th Precinct, Roosevelt Island has its own Public Safety Department. Aside from a recent rash of vandalism in the Motorgate parking garage, the neighborhood is quiet; when I called to request statistics on recent murders, rapes, and other violent crimes, the vice president of the RIOC laughed and said, “That’s very easy. There haven’t been any of those on the Island for years.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 27, 2004