Thursday, September 25, 2008

Welfare Island: a budding obsession.

Today, I had every intention of riding the F train. As such last night I was doing research on the line, and of course part of that research was on Roosevelt Island. I became so enthralled in its history, in fact, that I stayed up until 4am, didn't wake up until 1:15 this afternoon, and didn't have enough time left in the day to ride the train. So it goes.

Roosevelt Island seems to be destined to be part of my New York experience. I live in Astoria; have lived here since just two and a half months after coming to the city. And if I walk due west to the river along my street, I'm looking straight at the lighthouse (built by prison inmates from island-quarried stone in 1872 - *shiver*) that's on the northern tip of the island. The bus that stops on the main drag two blocks from my apartment is the Q102 - the bus that, incidentally, goes to and loops around Roosevelt Island. When I walk into the city over the Queensboro (59th Street) bridge, I walk right over the center of the island, where elevators used to bring people up to a trolley... but I'll get to that. There's just no way for me to avoid this little chunk of land that splits the East River in two for forty straight blocks.

On the island, previously known by many other names including Welfare Island due to its utterly bizarre history, the F train is sort of a big deal. Why? Because it is the only subway that stops there, and in fact it only stops in one place as it jets beneath the East River from midtown to Long Island City. The stop was to have opened in 1976, but didn't actually become functional until 1989 - 13 years late(r).

These days, there are other ways to get on and off the island of course: one bridge into Queens, and the ever so famous and neat-o East River Tram! The tram is tons of fun for sightseeing, but I certainly wouldn't want to depend on it for getting home after a long day at work. Or a short day at work. Or a short stroll in the park on a lovely afternoon. Basically I wouldn't want to depend on it at all. It doesn't come very frequently, and whenever it does come it's full up with jerks like me who are using it for sightseeing.

The tramway was built, actually, because construction on the F train stop was so obviously behind. (The station is apparently very deep - the second deepest station in the system, actually - and there seems to have been a lot of trouble getting this tunnel built at all.) Roosevelt's was the first commuter tram in the country, and was the only one until 2006 when dumb old Portland built one.

Before the Queens bridge (that is, the bridge that goes from the island directly into Long Island City) was built in the 50's, there were these crazy elevators that would carry people and cars up to the Queensboro Bridge where it passed overhead, near the middle of the island. For pedestrians, there was a trolley (!) that ran from midtown to that spot on the bridge and over to Queens, back and forth all day long. Cars and trucks would drive out of the elevator and into the traffic on the bridge. Can you imagine? Well you don't have to, because Eleanor Schetlin talks all about it in this here interview.

Now, about the non-transportation-related history of this little strip of land. Before it was Roosevelt it was Welfare, and before that Blackwell, before that Manning, and before the damn white people came and killed all the Indians it was Minnahononck. From the Not For Tourists website: 1828 the city bought the island and built a prison on it. To this prison was added a much-maligned asylum (muckraked both by Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly, who spent ten days undercover as a “patient”) and a small-pox hospital, and in 1921 the island was renamed yet again—Welfare Island. By this point the insane had been relocated to Ward’s Island slightly upstream. In 1935 Riker’s Island prison opened, and the last of Welfare Island’s criminal’s were transported there. This left a population of the merely sick, which grew in number as
two more hospitals, both chronic care and nursing facilities, were built in 1939 and 1952.

I guess that gives some clue as to what the island is about. But as for being there... it's just weird. Despite its history, it is now overrun with extremely expensive condos. I once wondered why the island never popped up in the apartment searches that I conduct every now and then, and I quickly found out: nothing on the island (that isn't owned by the city housing authority, that is) rents for under about $2200 a month. But it still has invalid hospitals on it, and they seem to cater especially to those patients who are missing limbs - veterans and such. So it's this completely unnerving combination of yuppies pretending to live on the upper east side (the island is, technically, part of Manhattan) but who are mainly on the west side of the island, project dwellers on the east side, and paraplegics scattered throughout. Very odd.

To the north is the infamous lunatic asylum. I've seen it, and anyway these days they're turning the building into apartments. Condos, actually. Um, hauntings, anyone? I don't care how pretty the Octagon is; I don't think I can live anywhere that was once described by Charles freakin' Dickens like so. And if that isn't bad enough, the Octagon itself is built of stone from the island that was quarried by inmates at the penitentiary. There's like twenty-seven different levels of bad karma in that place. Apparently when they began renovations, the ruin was overrun with feral cats - what did they do with all the hundreds of cats, for the love of god? For it to be any worse it would have to be on top of an old Indian burial ground - but oh, wait, it's probably that too.

It's odd - for a person that's basically agnostic and fairly despises all new-agey type mumbo jumbo, I tend to be very in tune with the psychic energy of places. It's why I hate new cities (dead as a doornail), and why some old apartments and buildings just wig me out. Merely walking past that site chilled me and I hardly knew the history of it; I could never live there. I dunno. Maybe it's a chi thing. Oddly enough though, people that can afford "Upper East Side" condos (as they're advertised) are rarely in tune with psychic vibrations, so maybe it will work out.

I've visited here once, almost a year ago now, and walked around the top two thirds of the island... not realizing that the RUINS OF THE ABANDONED SMALLPOX HOSPITAL (yeah, you heard me) are on the southern tip of the island. So, naturally, when I stop through on the F train I fully plan to head south. Also south is the site of the former penitentiary, where anarchist Emma Goldman served a seven month term in 1893. Mae West also seems to have served a ten day sentence on the island, though I suspect it was at the workhouse rather than the actual penitentiary - the penitentiary not being a ten day kind of place. The Goldwater Hospital now stands at the penitentiary site, though if Robert Moses had got his way it would have been a(nother) park. Man, New York history is weird. Near the smallpox hospital, known as the Renwick Ruins as named for the architect, there is also the ruin of what one source claims is the first bacteriological and pathological research laboratory in the country - the Strecker Laboratory. Apparently the NYC Transit is now building a powerstation within the ruin, with the tradeoff of restoring the facade.

There has been a memorial to FDR planned for the southern tip of the island for the past 34-35 years; there's a billboard down there about it now, actually. Some seem to be strongly pro, others strongly anti. Alls I know is that it's supposed to abut the smallpox hospital, so if it encourages them to make that a place to visit, I'm pro. If they even hint at tearing it down - which I don't think they can do since it's registered as a historic landmark - well, I'll kill 'em. Or at least, I'll sign petitions.

These days, the island has a new face, and if you hadn't done your homework, didn't venture too far south, didn't look to closely at the people or places you passed, and weren't paying attention to the flow of chi, you'd have no idea of its sordid history. It really is quite pretty, if all very new and planned and overly groomed. There's a Starbucks. It's confusing. I don't know though... if you pay attention to detail (like, say, all the people without arms), it's not hard to know that it's an unusual place. But not every one does.

One fun thing that we found on our visit last year: Otterness sculptures! In the water, no less. Very strange, very pleasing. A little bit scary.

For now, I'll leave off with this thought: I wonder what kind of security force they put out by the Smallpox hospital on Halloween night?

Monday, September 22, 2008

It's Electric! The E Train.

Ok. I know what you're thinking. It's been over a month! Where the hell are the subway shenanigans? But rest assured, the project is not abandoned. The E train has been ridden, and I'm here to tell you all about it.

Sadly, the E train was ridden approximately four billion years ago and it's taken me a while to get down to the blog writing. So once again, I will let my photographs be my guide.

I set out with the foolish notion that I'd take the W train down to Cordalant Street, making it just a short few-block jaunt to the World Trade Center terminus of the E where I planned to begin my E-training. Now, you'd think the name of my actual destination station would have tipped me off, but I'm a little dense. Take the W I did, but it rolled right on through Cordalant without stopping. Good thing too, because if it had stopped it would have let passengers out into a construction site. See, that particular station is basically underneath the site of the former twin towers, so it was hit pretty heavily during the collapse. And being not that big a deal as far as commuting traffic is concerned, it's taking them a minute to bring it back up to speed. Rolling through it is weird / cool / spooky. Anyway, I had to go to the next station and walk back up. No biggie, just a few blocks.

Upon arriving finally at my station, the first thing I noticed is that it's littered with the same watchful eye mosaics that we saw on the C train. And this makes sense, actually, since the WTC station connects with the Chambers Street station where we first witnessed said eyeballs.

One thing you should know about the E is that it's pretty much always crowded. If you live here, you already know it. If you don't live here but plan to visit, remember this: take another train if at all possible. Trust me when I say that it'll be better for you and your fellow commuters both. During off hours, it looks like this, and during "peak times" sometimes you can't even squeeze your way on.

Above all, the E is a working man's train. And after a long shift, that working man is f-ing tired.

There's not a lot of art along the E line. It's neglected that way. But there's always the Otterness installations at the 14th and 8th stop. Maybe you're tired of me showing you these creations, but if this little guy doesn't make you happy then your heart is as dead as stone in your cold, black chest. Just sayin'.

At Lexington Avenue/53rd Street, there is art... of a sort. It's colorful, and extensive, and... well, pretty damn ugly. But it's certainly more interesting than your average dingy white station tiling. And the kiddies do seem to like it. This family just killed me.

Also at this station are the super steep crazy tunnel escalators that make me feel like I'm probably definitely going to die. This station is rather close to where I used to work in midtown, and sometimes I'd come here to hop under the river to my studio. Nothing like spending 8 or so hours in a soulless, windowless office and then cruising down one of these babies.

After popping under the East River and making a couple of cursory stops at 23rd/Ely and Queens Plaza (my hood, yo), the E switches very definitely into Express mode. Above, the crush at Jackson Heights/Roosevelt Avenue - a major hub.

I had some unfinished business at the Kew Gardens/Union Turnpike stop, and upon exiting there came upon a pleasant surprise. When I served jury duty in that neck of the woods, I'd always gotten out on the other end of the train and therefore through an entrance/exit unconnected to this one. So I didn't know about the Cloud installation. I'm not sure if this is officially sanctioned MTA art; I think it makes me a little happier if it isn't.

This here is the courthouse where the infamous Sean Bell hearings were held, and incidentally also where I was called to serve jury duty. Well, at least I tried to serve. Ironically enough, I was called about two weeks after I finally quit my job at the law firm. Anyway, I hung out for three days, but they didn't want me. It doesn't matter though; I'm good for six years. Woot. At any rate, my little jaunt out to Kew tipped me off on this bad boy, the real reason for dismounting the E and taking a walk down the turnpike:

Yep, instead of dumping this old redbird car into the Atlantic as they seem to be doing with so many others, they turned it into a mini museum... which is never open, as far as I can tell. But I'm still happy it's there. And as to whether we should be dumping huge chunks of metal off the coast... well, that's another discussion entirely, during which my Environmental Geography claws just may have to come out.

Soon enough I reached the end of the line, Jamaica Center. What with starting in Manhattan and then running express in Queens, it really is a short trip. Upon exiting the platform, one of the first things I saw was this:

My thoughts ran like so: 1) Maybe this isn't such a nice place to live? 2) And there's why I ride the trains during the day.

But then, upon exiting the station, the first thing I saw was this:

And then this:

And then this:

(A historical mansion from colonial days, now run as a museum, in case you're wondering.) So it's hard to tell about a neighborhood. As best as I could discern in the twenty minutes that I spent there, it's a lot of working class people with their families and their kids, who are sometimes plagued by those who have gone hopeless and turned to darker activities. So it goes, I guess. Put enough people in one place and you'll usually find the same kind of underbelly.

I rode on home on the E - it does, after all, roll through Long Island City, just three blocks from my studio, and really what better way to culminate the day? It was still nowhere near rush hour. The train? Well, I couldn't get a seat.

**All photos from the E train ride can be viewed on the Subway Project Flickr page in the E Train set - I tend to be straightforward like that.