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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.


Entries from June 28, 2009 - July 4, 2009


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:


Roosevelt Island : Northtown

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.

After opening it's first building, Island House, in the early 1970's Northtown quickly became, and has remained, the main drag on Roosevelt Island. Nestled between the Roosevelt Island Bridge on the north, and the Tram and Subway on the south, the solitary stretch of Main Street is pretty easy to access. Throughout the 70's and 80's many more buildings were constructed, including Manhattan Park, which began to bring a less "soviet depression" style of building to the island.

Most of the original WIRE developments (Westview, Island House, Riverwalk, Eastwood) match each other in terms of style, color and vision. The canopied walkways create for great shelter during bad weather, but also make Main St feel very claustrophobic. If not for the Chapel of the Good Shepherd (built in 1889) in the middle of the neighborhood, the entire street would be enclosed by towering apartments.

Down the street things begin to open up a bit as Capobianco Field takes over the east side, and the Roosevelt Island Public School, P.S. 217, shows up on the west. Though, P.S. 217 brings it's own unique style to the street, complete with curved facade and mult-colored accents.

It's after this point that Manhattan Park begins and Main Street has an opportunity to open up a bit. However, the municipal parking structure ensures that it doesn't happen. Taking up the equivalent of two full city blocks, the 30+ year old concrete mass is both imposing and strangely beautiful. It's repetitive pattern of gray blocks works as a great foil for Manhattan Park's green spaces. Originally built to hold every single car on the island (automobiles were originally banned from Main St - save for essential services) it now acts as just a general parking structure with monthly rates. The massive, triangular structure to the south of the main garage holds stairs, escalators and elevators to get down to street level. The Roosevelt Island Bridge feeds right into both the garage and the off-ramp to Main Street, and there's a lot of brilliant, vintage signs that still hang all around here. While it's technically closed to the public, the top of the parking garage offers some really great views of the area.

The final building on this part of Main Street belongs to the AVAC/Trash Collection system. Unique to Roosevelt Island (and Disney World), AVAC connects all the buildings on the island with a series of high-speed pneumatic tubes, which forces trash to fly under resident's feet at 50 MPH. As I understand it, this was also implemented to ensure as few vehicles were needed on the island.

Of course, now cars are more than welcome on the island. However, the issues that they originally wanted to avoid are now common place: Traffic jams, overcrowding, double parking. With red buses, Public Safety, Delivery Trucks, and countless pedestrians are fighting for some street space, it's often quite a battle to endure.

Northtown is highlighted in orange on this week's map:


Roosevelt Island : South Point 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.

While most people head up towards Northtown after departing from the Tram or Subway, there's still plenty of good reasons to venture to the other side of the Queensboro bridge - down past the Goldwater hospital and to South Point Park.

What this area lacks in residences or commercial presence it more than makes up for with old buildings, beautiful vistas, and unique landmarks. Perhaps the last element of "modern" Roosevelt Island that you'll pass on your way down here is the Racquet Club. After that, the endless march of hospital structures take over. From overhead, the interesting layout and architecture of the Goldwater campus is evident. The "chevron-like" shape of the buildings all dovetail into each other, creating an interesting flow. However, it appears little has been done to maintain the hospital since being built in '39.

The hospital marks the last of the inhabited part of Roosevelt Island. Past here lies South Point Park – a mostly undeveloped patch of land, which is home to only two structures. The Strecker Lab, which is currently fenced in and not easily seen, was recently renovated after being in disrepair for many years. At over 117 years old, it's age is only surpassed by the Smallpox Hospital just down the path (156 years), and the Octagon Tower (170 years old, on the opposite end of the island). The Smallpox hospital, now known as the Renwick Ruins (after it's architect) had a recent scare as it's north wall collapsed, putting the whole structure at risk. It's perhaps most well-known as the location of Spiderman and The Green Goblin's final battle in the 2001 film.

The Smallpox Hospital is the last building on the island. A grassy field takes you to the tip, where one can enjoy breathtaking views of Manhattan, Queens and the East River. These views are at risk, however, thanks to a controversial plan to develop all of South Point as a memorial to FDR. The Louis Kahn-designed plan is mostly under attack for it's destruction of the views. The plan would plant a row of trees around the entire tip, and convert the shell of the smallpox hospital into an outdoor cafeteria of sorts.

Typically South Point Park is one of the best places to watch the 4th of July fireworks - however since it's being moved to the Hudson River for 2009, Roosevelt Island will have to do without that income for now.

This is perhaps one of the last completely undeveloped parts of Manhattan. It's quiet, empty tracts of land put you in a surreal place that city-dwellers rarely get to experience.

South Point Park and the Goldwater Campus are highlighted in dark blue on this week's map:


Roosevelt Island : Southtown

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.

In the past 8 years, this part of Roosevelt Island has undergone seismic change. It was only in 2001 when construction first began on the Riverwalk buildings, just south of the original Northtown buildings from years before. Since then, six buildings have taken shape and changed the face of the island – for better or worse.

With the new construction came new tenants, by the hundreds. Luckily both the Tram and Subway are just a few steps from their doorsteps. At the very least this keeps the much-maligned/much-celebrated red buses a little less crowded than they'd otherwise be (Though the influx of new residents from The Octagon – built around the same period – more than offset this slight benefit seen here...more on that in a later post).

However, despite the greater volume of people on the mass transit, Riverwalk did begin to bring the first new commercial presence to the island in a long while. With a Starbucks opening not long after the first few buildings were complete, a pizza place, sushi restaurant and finally the icon of all New York shopping: Duane Reade followed within the next few years. Now, after several years of being dry, Roosevelt Island is about to see a brand new bar and restaurant open this Summer.

This part of the island is also unique for having more than just Main Street running through it. East Road begins just south of the fork in Main Street and continues past the Goldwater hospital campus.

Because everything here is so new (The tram was built in '76, the Subway in '89, the buildings in '01), there's not much to admire here in a historical context. But like most of the island, there are great views of Manhattan, and especially the Queensboro Bridge.

Southtown can be seen as highlighted green on this week's map:


Roosevelt Island : The Tram

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. 

Opened in 1976, the Roosevelt Island Tramway is perhaps the only real way to get on the island (I mean, let's face it, the F train is hardly an appropriate way to visit a bizarre, non-contiguous part of Manhattan). Unless you encounter high winds, the 4 minute ride is usually without incident and offers some of the best views around. It's just about the best $2.25 you can spend (I'm adjusting for the MTA rate hike going into effect today). For a peek at those views, you can watch the title image for today – it's a movie, just press play.

The two cabins run on a single loop of cable, so they both depart and run at the same speeds, moving in opposite directions. On occasion they will stop mid-run to drop off or pick up a maintenance worker from one of the three support towers.  That can be a bit unnerving to some, but in the 30+ years, the Tram has had zero problems involving support and stability of the cables or towers.  Now power and reliability - that's another issue. Famously, the tram was stuck for seven hours in 2006 when it's main and backup power sources failed. However, since then much of the backup systems have been replaced or fixed and there's yet to be a problem.

There are plans to modernize the tramway, originally in July of this year – now September. So if you're looking to take a ride on the original, then you best get moving. 

On this week's map, the Roosevelt Island Tramway is indicated by a small blue line parallel to the Queensboro Bridge: