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NYC Grid is a photo blog dedicated to exploring New York block-by-block and corner-by-corner. Each post covers a new street or feature with a focus on the mundane and ephemeral.


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Roosevelt Island : Octagon Park & Lighthouse Park

Welcome to Roosevelt Island. A misunderstood place where time slows down, weather patterns change, and 25¢ will still get you a decent bus ride. This week's posts are going to present you with a cross section of Roosevelt Island – from the southern most tip, all the way up to Lighthouse Park.

Leaving the crowded streets of Northtown, you enter an area that, up until recently, was very similar to the southern tip of the island. Though more developed than it's southern counterpart, Lighthouse Park mirrors South Point in many ways. The Coler Campus up here mirrors the Goldwater one just a mile or two away.

The Octagon is the first and perhaps most notable structure you'll encounter while up here. Now an apartment/condo complex, the Octagon Tower that sits in the middle holds the title of "second oldest" structure on the island (the Blackwell House, which I really should have talked about yesterday is the older by about 40 years). Built in 1839 The Octagon started it's life, humbly enough, as the New York Lunatic Asylum. For a good part of the 20th century, it sat in complete disrepair, until in 1982 when it's dome was set on fire - leaving only the stone structure standing. Even after being declared a landmark, it still sat for many years with no change. In 1995 the surrounding park was setup, including the public gardens, soccer field, baseball field and tennis courts - the building still sat in ruins. It wouldn't be until the late 90's/early 2000's that plans would begin to come together for it's development. In 2006, amongst much criticism, the new Octagon Park Apartments began moving in it's first tenants.

Though the renovation of the Octagon Tower is incredibly beautiful and detailed, the addition of 500 new units this far north had a substantial impact for others on the island. The red bus, which shuttles residents around for a quarter-a-ride, now had to re-evaluate it's routes. To be fair: the red bus was of most use to those living in the new building, since they had the furthest to travel to get to the Subway and Tram stations. But, now with the bus crowded by the time it reached Manhattan Park, other riders would have to wait to get on. All of a sudden all these people, who just moved to the island, were taking over one of it's most essential services, rendering it useless to others who had been living for years down on the main drag in Northtown. The solution, according to the RIOC – the governing body for Roosevelt Island – was to start an "Octagon Express" and Firehouse Local" run, the former of which would go directly from the Octagon to the Subway/Tram every twenty minutes. The Firehouse Local would do the opposite, and bypass the Octagon altogether, starting it's run up in Manhattan Park. On paper, this seemed to solve the problem – giving the Octagon Residents the extra service they'd need (being so far north) while keeping some busses exclusively for the rest of the island. Unfortunately, it didn't work as well as many had hoped. The Octagon Express became a bit of an icon of exclusivity and pompousness to the rest of the island, while the Firehouse Local didn't nearly clear up the congestion as much as hoped. On top of which, these "special" buses only run during rush hour, and even stop in different places than the normal runs. It's all a bit of a mess.

But I digress...

The hospital campus between The Octagon and Lighthouse Park is very barren on both sides, though is perhaps less depressing on the west side of the island. Though not as big as the Goldwater campus, it's equally as creepy in character.

Lighthouse Park is a beautifully groomed, though small, park that extends from the Coler campus up to the tip of the island. Dotted with a 50-foot-tall lighthouse, designed by James Renwick (the same one who designed the Smallpox Hospital on the other end of the island) and constructed in the 1870's, it, like The Octagon, is on the National Registry of Historic Places.

It's not uncommon to see people fishing or having parties of picnics up here on the weekends. It's panoramic views of the city create for a great backdrop to many events. The river just north of the island re-converges in an area known as Hell Gate - which has some very interesting tidal activity. For many years it was a very dangerous place for ships to go through...

According to Wikipedia:

By the late 19th century, hundreds of ships had sunk in the strait. In 1851 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began to clear obstacles from the strait with explosives; the process would last seventy years. On September 24, 1876, the Corps used 50,000 pounds of explosives to blast the dangerous rocks, which was followed by further blasting work. On October 10, 1885, the Corps carried out the largest explosion in this process, annihilating Flood Rock with 300,000 lbs. of explosives. The explosion sent a geyser of water 250 feet in the air; the blast was felt as far away as Princeton, New Jersey. The explosion has been described as "the largest planned explosion before testing began for the atomic bomb,"...

A very calm and quiet place, the northern tip of Roosevelt Island is an ideal spot to go if you're looking to escape the rush of Manhattan without going much further than a few hundred yards.

Octagon Park & Lighthouse Park are highlighted in purple on this week's map:

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Reader Comments (1)

Wow. When I lived on Roosevelt Island, the little red bus was free. Of course, that was also only just after the subway station opened and it was the Q train that stopped here. My fathers, with whom I moved in for 6 months when I was between apartments, pre-dated the subway.

i haven't been back since my dads moved out in the mid 90's. It seems from these posts, that it has changed tremendously. Perhaps it's time for a visit.

November 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKate

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