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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Lighthouse Park, Roosevelt Island (and Tramway Plaza)

The quest to visit every park in New York City implies a mission to explore just about every neighborhood in New York City, too.

In a burg of eight million people, that's a titanic amount of ground to cover. Especially when you have to do it all in your spare time.

I first visited Roosevelt Island back in the '70s on an excursion with my grandfather. Back then there was no subway station; you had to go by tram.

Today, there's a pleasant little green space at the Manhattan terminus called Tramway Plaza.

Back then, what we found on the island was an old folks' home (to use the jargon of the time) and pretty much nothing else.

A few years later, apartment buildings were constructed, and I visited with my family a couple of times when our cousins lived there.

Today most of the island is built up, inhabited and accessible. I explored the two parks on the southern tip during a late-winter snowfall last year. Because of the weather that day, there was, as decades before, very little going on there in terms of human activity.

But for my visit to Lighthouse Park at the north end I picked a warm summer day, and finally observed an actual society of people on the island.

Roosevelt Island is one of New York's quieter and in some ways stranger parts. For one thing, it's so long and thin that you can't really call it a neighborhood, as the north and south ends are two miles apart. For another, there's very little car traffic. Most people access the island most of the time by the famous Roosevelt Island Tram or the F train (subway access arrived in 1989). You can also bike or walk there from the Queens side.

So in a way, the whole island feels a little like a big, stretched-out park.

Near the midpoint, close to where the tram and subway drop you off, there's a restaurant, a Starbucks (of course), a tiny tourist office, a fruit stand, and a couple of other enterprises. A little farther north, along the western shore, I found a more easygoing summertime scene: Eleanor's Pier, a waterside plaza where several food vendors served a small clientele.

Continuing north, you can enjoy vistas of Manhattan and the East River from riverside benches which add to the parklike feel of this part of the island.

Although there were people about, there wasn't much noise to be heard, aside from the wind. One exception came when I passed a soccer game.

Popping up out of the water is a three-part sculpture by Tom Otterness called "The Marriage of Money and Real Estate." (Pictured: one of the three parts)

Roosevelt Island has a very interesting history which I won't detail here but which you can read about in an article by Judith Berdy reproduced at the Roosevelt Island Historical Society website. Penitentiary, workhouse, lunatic asylum, Metropolitan Hospital, City Hospital, almshouses and, as I recall myself, a nursing home have all been part of it.

Judith Berdy's article points out that "If the island had been developed 10 or 20 years later, the builders probably would have saved more of the structures. But in the 1960s and 1970s, many beautiful buildings were just bulldozed."

Parts of the island remain undeveloped to this day.

Dayspring Church is picturesque, not to mention "full-gospel, multiracial, non-denominational, [and] Holy Spirit filled and led."

I pushed still further north and found more human noise emanating from a cookout.

At last I reached Lighthouse Park, the actual goal of this excursion.

Some of the trees in the grassy hang-out area have some personality (and readers of this blog know I'm always looking for trees with personality). The second picture shows something I've never seen before in all my explorations of this city of gazillion London plane trees: a London plane tree with four trunks.

The Gothic-style lighthouse itself was designed by James Renwick, Jr., who also created the smallpox hospital at the island's opposite end (probably the most famous of Roosevelt Island's six surviving historic buildings) not to mention St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. The Lighthouse Friends website, which has some interesting history on the lighthouse, suggests that as it was probably constructed by insane asylum inmates, "adherence to Renwick's blueprint is questionable."

A glance at the rough waters of the East River around the island explains the need for a lighthouse.

The nearby tidal strait Hell Gate seems appropriately named, though the word "Hell" here comes from a Dutch word and has nothing to do with Hades.

The lighthouse is only 53 feet tall but when it was constructed, of gray gneiss, in the 1870s, that was probably considered more than sufficient to "effectually light" the nearby New York City Insane Asylum. The island itself, then known as Blackwell Island, is quite flat.

Some nice trees light up the eastern edge of the little park.

On the way back to the tram I stopped at a viewing platform designed like the prow of a ship.

I paused to observe the Manhattan skyline from this unusual perspective.

Some amphitheater-style seating, as if set up for watching a show performed on the surface of the river, had been completely unoccupied on my northward walk. But as I headed back south, the sun had come out, and a few people had taken up residence on the wooden boards.

No one was popping their faces into the faded "strong man" and "bathing beauty" cutouts, though. Seems the hipsters haven't quite invaded Roosevelt Island yet. But when you see the term "Smorgasburg-Style" being used, they can't be far behind, can they?

Tune in tomorrow?

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