On a quintessential New York evening on the East River, timed with the landing of President Obama’s helicopters at the Downtown Manhattan Heliport, I joined openhousenewyork on their Other Islands Boat Tour. Led by Stuart Miller and Sharon Seitz, authors of the book The Other Islands of New York, the event aboard the packed yacht, the Zephyr, was a cocktail party blended with fun New York facts told by the dynamic hosts.
According to Miller, the islands reflect the story of the city as its priorities have shifted over time. Some were originally purposed as military protection from the British during the War of 1812, named later for the families that owned them, and transformed over time into places of leisure, of isolation, of residence, and often of heterotopia.
First up was the 1/2 acre man-man island U Thant Island, situated halfway between the United Nations building and Long Island City, named in honor of the former UN Secretary General from Burma. The island was created from the materials excavated by William Steinway in his attempt to built underwater tunnels in the East River between Manhattan and his company town in Astoria, Steinway Village. Steinway died before completion of the tunnels, which were finished by August Belmont. Today the tunnels are still used by the 7 line train.
U Thant Island
Not mentioned was the little outcrop just south of Roosevelt Island, where occasionally “Lou” the seal mans his perch, observing the construction at FDR Four Freedoms Park.
As Roosevelt Island changed hands from Dutch to English to American, it subsequently underwent the necessary nomenclature changes””from Manning’s Island to Blackwell’s Island to Welfare Island. The latter name hints at the island’s functional role in New York City’s history””as a location for prisons, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital.
The new FDR Four Freedoms Park will open in October, must adjacent to the abandoned James Renwick designed Smallpox Hospital
The lighthouse at the northern tip of Roosevelt Island was also designed by James Renwick
Next was Mill Rock, originally two islands called Great Mill Rock and Little Mill Rock. The area was known as Hell’s Gate for the havoc it wreaked on ships, and the islands were connected in 1885 through a massive detonation by the Army Corps of Engineers that was felt all the way in Princeton, New Jersey.
Randalls Island and Ward Island were also separate islands, connected via landfill by Robert Moses. As a child, I remember telling my father of the mysterious bridge which was sometimes elevated and sometimes not. It was just the 103rd Street Footbridge, which can be lifted in the center to allow ships to pass. Randalls Island is now home to Icahn Stadium and many sports venues.
Most curious to me were the abandoned North and South Brother Islands. Luckily, I was standing next to photographer Christopher Payne, author of Asylum: Inside the Closed World of State Mental Hospitals and New York’s Forgotten Substations: The Power Behind the Subway, and historic preservationist Randall Mason, who are jointly working on a book about North Brother Island. It was the site of the General Slocum steamship tragedy where over 1300 people perished, mostly immigrants. The island was also home to Typhoid Mary, where she was quarantined for the last two decades of her life.
According to Payne, there are no current plans for North Brother Island and it functions as a wildlife sanctuary. The structures still remain, albeit in a state of decline, including a coal and boiler plant, and nurses quarters.
Southern view of North Brother ISland
Remnants of a dock at North Brother Island
The final island on the tour was Rikers Island. I’ve had the opportunity to enter the prison facility several times while working on a legal workshop for the incarcerated juveniles as part of the Rikers Island Project. It was one of the most incredible experiences I’ve had in New York City and I hope more readers will get involved.
Don’t miss openhousenewyork weekend this October, where you will gain access to many of the places you’ve previously read and seen on Untapped New York.
Get in touch with the author @untappedmich. Find out more about openhousenewyork.