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?

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