On-line resources from the
American Studies Resources Centre at LJMU

Liverpool John Moores University

Letters from
New York
By Lenny Quart

Lenny has lived in New York for most of
his life, and here he presents a varied selection
of letters expressing his own
unique take on city life.
Lenny QuartAmerican Studies Today Online

Front Page

New for 2014

An Elite Liberal University
Going to an Elite School


A Victory in the Culture Wars?
An East River Island
A Plethora of Police Scandals
Facts and Intuitions
Exploring a Queens Neighborhood
The Bronx: For Better or Worse
The City in Flux


Brooklyn Writers
Whatever Happened to America's White Working Class?
Once More about Obama
Political takes
An ennui-free city
Comfort Food for the Literate
A Unique Street
Election aftermath
Back to Obama
Transit Follies
An Economically Beleaguered City
Oscar Tedium
Prose and poetry
A Painful Conclusion to 2008
A Celebration of Two Writers
The Political Process
Growing Up in New York
Oscars 2008
Celebrating the Forward
A Bohemian Oasis
A Word from a Convention Demonstrator
Election Post Mortem
Sidney Lumet: New York Director
The New York Subway
Times Square: Past and Present
New York on the eve of 2005
A Cheer for Self-Doubt
The Working Poor
A Vale of Tears
Spike Lee's New Orleans
Hasidim in Brooklyn
Slavery in NYC
A Cornucopia of Stories
A Painter in the City
Altman's Oscar Night
Bob Dylan: American Icon
Brooklyn Changing
Diane Arbus
Political Theatre
The New York Post
Public Life
Surviving the Inner-City
Transit Strike
Three Political Takes
The Sixties Redux
Memorials and Oscars

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Location Map from Dr Blofeld OpenStreetMap

An East River Island

Posted 21 February 2013

Click on any image to see a larger picture

Roosevelt Island, which is part of Manhattan, is about 3.2 km long and a very narrow 250 metres wide at maximum, and lies between Manhattan to its west and Queens to its east. It was known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973, and once housed a smallpox hospital designed by the famous 19th century architect, James Renwick Jr. (the hospital's Gothic ruins have been preserved and landmarked) and a prison, Welfare Penitentiary, and still houses the first public hospital in the US, Coler/Goldwater, built in 1939 and devoted This is a panoramic photo of the ruined smallpox hospital located on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island. The camera is facing northwest. Photograph by (Skemez1 (talk) 10:28, 31 December 2007 (UTC))to chronic diseases.

Owned by the city, the island was leased to the New York State's Urban Development Corporation for 99 years in 1969 to be developed as a middle-income enclave, subsidized by the Mitchell-Lama program. Though some of the housing is moving towards privatization and to more expensive rents (there is also some luxury housing), most of the apartments are being rented far below market rates. The island's population is growing as new housing is being built and planned; it could reach 16,000 by the end of the decade.

Recently, I decided to explore the island with a friend from the southern to the northern tip. We took the tram and the five-minute ride reminded me why, when I went there with my daughter many years ago, I took so much pleasure in the trip. The tram provided an intimate view of the dynamic, ever-vital city as it swooped over Manhattan's Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, apartment towers from various eras, gray hospital structures, FDR Drive's incessant flow of cars and a glistening, churning East River.

Having arrived at the Island, we decided to first walk down to its southern tip to take a look at The Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, one of the final designs of architect Louis I. Kahn, now opening after years of delays. Twin allées of linden trees now View of Roosevelt Island and Queensboro Bridge, New York City, viewed from 31st floor of 49th Street Jonathan Laventhol 19 February 2009 licensed under Wikimedia Commonsflank the triangular four-acre plot, drawing the eye to a dramatic bronze bust of FDR by sculptor Jo Davidson. The sculpture is inserted in a stone alcove, and FDR's Four Freedoms speech (his 1941 State of the Union address) has been carved on the opposite side. From the park one can see the UN, which FDR played a prime role in establishing.

However, Roosevelt Island is not about the monumental. It's a low crime island with an economically and racially diverse population. It is enhanced by a few large mounds of wild flowers, waterfront parks, ball fields and green plantings throughout. One side of the island's promenade looks out at Manhattan's skyline - clearly its most striking feature (especially the night view of an illuminated city beckoning with possibility) - the other on the new glass residential towers dominating the gentrified and developing Long Island City (Queens) waterfront.

The island's residential areas are divided into two sections: Northtown, which is older, and Southtown which contains luxury full-service, sixteen storey buildings housing a number of the staff members of Upper East Side hospitals. The Southtown buildings are architecturally more distinctive, and they have attracted to an island that offers few places to eat a Starbucks, a Duane Reade and newer eating establishments such as Nonno's Focacceria and Fuji East, which have outdoor tables.

Northtown has never worked for me. Its Main Street, a self-conscious attempt to create the semblance of a narrow village street, is lined with cheaply-built buildings and appears drab and lifeless. Although I've read that there is going to be an attempt to transform it, at present there are too many vacant and non-descript shops. Main Street should be bursting with people and activity, but no sign of that exists yet.

We did walk from Northtown to the landmarked, Gothic-style lighthouse on the island's northern tip. Standing there one can see flocks of gulls flying towards the Triborough Bridge in the distance. It's one of those rare NY spots that perfectly serve those who crave solitude and silence. As my friend said: "The small light tower with its views of Manhattan, Queens and Randall's Island mesmerizes me. It can't get better than that."

But I am a visitor not an inhabitant. When I asked a retired public relations man about his experience living on the island for thirty-three years, his response was extremely positive. He said he loved its physical openness, the purity of its light, and how quiet and natural it was compared to Manhattan. He also liked the fact that it was more racially and economically mixed than the Upper East Side - the neighborhood in which he previously resided. I don't know if his perspective is shared by most of Roosevelt Island's inhabitants. But what he likes about the island seems right - they are its prime virtues.

The island is on the cusp of major changes. Cornell University is building a two-million-square-foot (185806m²) technology on its southern tip. The plan is that the first building - an academic hub and a residential building - won't be finished until 2017. The rest of the campus is scheduled for completion in 2037. When done, it will no longer be the same island. But that's all in the future. For the present, though I might find Roosevelt Island somewhat arid, its residents seem to find it a pleasant place to live.

Ed's note

To learn more about the Mitchell-Lama subsidised housing programme, read about it in Wikipedia

or the New York State Homes and Community Renewal page