Roosevelt Island



As a fan of live comedy I used to trawl the acts that appeared in my hometown. One local compere from Newcastle would always tell the same joke about Gateshead, where I lived. He would explain how he enjoyed visiting Gateshead, but only because of the view of Newcastle across the river Tyne. Meanwhile, the rest of Newcastle only had Gateshead to look across at, which at the time was as impressive as a disused quarry. 

I'm always reminded of that joke when I visit New York City, and wonder whether a comedian in one of its countless comedy clubs has ever poked fun at New Jersey or Roosevelt Island in the same way. Both enjoy views across the sky-scraping skyline of Manhattan but are hardly in the same league themselves. 

Roosevelt Island is worth a second look, though. It's the other island in Manhattan where New Yorkers live, aside from Manhattan Island itself - a fillet of land barely two miles long that stretches down New York's East River inbetween Manhattan and Queens. Its history is as lively and bizarre as anywhere else in the city - in the 19th century, it was home to lepers, lunatics and prisoners, tantalisingly close to civilisation but stranded by the deep currents of the river.

Reaching Roosevelt Island is so easy it's surprising more tourists don't stray there. There's a single stop on the Subway's F Line, but far more exciting is the Roosevelt Island tramway which runs from Manhattan's 2nd Avenue at 60th St, just a block from Bloomingdales. Built by the Swiss in 1976, two huge cable cars sail back and forth through the sky, alongside the Queensboro bridge which connects Manhattan to Queens.The tramway runs every 15 minutes, the journey between Manhattan and Roosevelt Island takes just four. As with the subway and buses, the journey is free if you have a Metrocard pass. 

Once you reach the island? It'll only take a couple of hours to walk its perimeter (although the island has its own bus service) and there's plenty to see; tucked in amongst the condominium homes of 10,000 New Yorkers are plenty of landmarks. Blackwell House dates back to the late 18th Century and is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It's a modestly-sized manor house that was typical of the period but now rarer than hen's teeth in the city, and named after the island's former owner - as is Blackwell Island Lighthouse at the northern tip of the island, with views beyond to Ward's Island and the Hell Gate Bridge. Before you reach the lighthouse, you'll spot a magnificent octagonal building; this is unsurprisingly known as The Octagon, and it served as the main entrance to the New York City Lunatic Asylum, a vast L shaped structure that at one time held over 3,000 inmates. 

The south of the island is dominated by Goldwater Specialty Hospital; beyond that is a stretch of broad, flat land and the Renwick Ruin, the neo-gothic remains of the island's smallpox hospital. This area will soon turn Roosevelt Island from a neighbourhood considered off-the-beaten-path into a must-visit destination for locals and tourists alike, when in 2012 the FDR Four Freedoms Park opens at the southern point of the island.

Like the recently extended Brooklyn Bridge Park, Four Freedoms will be popular not only for the sensation of freedom from the airless metropolis, but because of the views it affords. But the views are there already - Manhattan's jostling, jigsawed skyline across the East River is up-close and magnificent. From the United Nations to the Upper East Side, you can very easily spend half a day snapping away and taking it all in. 

Cable cars, lunatics, lighthouses and postcard views - most New Yorkers will disagree, but Roosevelt Island is worth more than a glance from Manhattan



"Twitchhiker – How One Man Travelled the World by Twitter" is Paul's book about his social media adventure around the world, published by Summersdale and available on Amazon.
Paul's next book, "Tales from the Edge of America" will be published in Spring 2012. You can subscribe to the book's mailing list to find out more.