Thank God for Roosevelt Island

The little apple is not for everyone and now that I have read about it and researched it I begin to understand why.

The Island is merely a rock, about 3 km long and only 0.24 km wide at its fattest point. It is like someone dropped a long raft in the East River across from the East side of Manhattan (it extends from E 46th street to E83rd). From my windows I can see the UN General Assembly building, and the Trump Tower where I occasionally sit for lunch break.

The Island has a bad reputation. I have heard people referring to it as an “enclave of isolation” a “ghetto” and it is ranked 47 in the best neighborhoods to live in according to New York Magazine, with some parts of the Bronx and Staten Island faring better. The online article has a charming picture there, but dismissively says that although its setting suggests a small town atmosphere within a big city, it never quite found its own retail or street culture, and remains notoriously inconvenient.

Its history is no less colourful. The dutch bought from the Indians in the 17th century. It was  called Blackwell Island for a time. Between 1921 and 1973 it was known as Welfare Island, for obvious reasons. Its residents have an equal stigma attached to them because of that designation. Also if you consider that shortly after the City of New York bought it in the 1920s it housed the petiniary, the lunatic asylum and the smallpox hospital, you would understand the deep dark history of RI.

Before I chose to rent here I took a walk around the Island on a dark and wet day of early spring. The streets were deserted and gray, the abandoned shops looked grimy and forbidding behind dusty windows. The skyline on Manhattan side looks nice but towards Queens you look towards a Costco warehouse and three chimneys of a thermal power station. The “retail” section of Main Street has the look of a long history of decay and neglect and the playgrounds were abandoned. The high number of disabled and rehab patients in their motorised or manual wheelchairs adds to the melancholy of the setting.

Once spring and sunshine arrived things started looking different. I took walks after work, and saw families, romantic couples and even fishermen along the promenade. The broken paving and rusty railings remind me of home in South Africa, and although I do not get from this promenade an ocean-wide view to Robben Island and beyond like in Cape Town, it still smells and feels like the sea. Best thing is that I have the river as a buffer zone to seperate me from the city that I still mistrust.

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