The end of adolescence for a bizarre East River utopia
When I was 11 years old, a group of kids I was playing basketball with outside decided to venture into a nearby jungle. Really it was just an area probably not much more than 400 feet wide and a short city block long, crowded with trees, mostly Ailanthus probably, in the center of which was the chassis of a wrecked car.
While wandering through the dense brush, we could hear (and smell) the East River, and could make out the tall buildings of the Manhattan riverfront through the leaves.
To our surprise, a wild turkey appeared, and then started running away from us. We ran after it. I'm not sure why. Partly out of curiosity and surprise, partly because we were worried for it. We kept it off the street and running along the sidewalk before we ran across a security guard who was able to take the situation in hand.
The Roosevelt Island I grew up on is very different today, and looks like it will be very, very different some time in the 2030s, when Cornell has finished building its enormous technical institute. This morning, the south end of the island, roped off during much of my childhood because of the dangers presented by the gothic ruins of the smallpox hospital there (but easily accessible to kids with 4-packs of Bartles & Jaymes and the ability to scale chain-link fences) was dedicated as a giant memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whom the island was named in the first place.
The name was never just a name, actually, the way the Triborough is now named after Robert F. Kennedy. F.D.R. was our last president to use a wheelchair. The entire island is wheelchair accessible, and one of the apartment buildings in my complex, Eastwood, was specially tailored to people in wheelchairs (low counters, spaces beneath them where cupboards would normally be to allow people in wheelchairs to pull up and prepare food). People with cerebral palsy, for which many patients were treated at the island's two hospitals, Coler and Goldwater, tended to live in those apartments once they were able to live on their own.
I lived on a Roosevelt Island that was supposed to have been a failed experiment in real-estate development. Only one phase of apartment buildings had been completed when we moved in, and it seemed like no more would ever arrive. That was fine with us. The island had jungles and ruins, and more basketball courts, baseball fields and soccer fields than the 5,000 residents could possibly use. A road winding around the island provided an unbroken 4-mile bike ride with no traffic and beautiful views. Unused land was turned into community gardens: the image of my parents toiling away at their onions and tomatoes and cut flowers in their 400-square-foot plot, in the shadow of the brutal, tall apartment building we lived in is emblazoned in my brain like some socialist-realist idyll, made only funnier by the fact that my parents are Republicans.
Rents were determined in part by the situation your family was in. If you made more, you paid more. Single mothers and people with serious illnesses got deductions. The public school, in the '80s, was one of the best in the city. And lots of families stationed at the United Nations lived there. The result was that my apartment was the same as the banker's son's apartment I went to school with, and the same as the struggling single mother's son I also went to school with. The same as the apartment occupied by former Kibbutzniks from Israel, one of whom was my first real girlfriend.
My troupe of friends included kids from Tanzania, China, Pakistan, Ghana, Japan and England; in one case, Canada. I had friends who went to the tiny Catholic parish there, St. Francis X. Cabrini, whose parents paid for their food with foodstamps. Others went to the Protestant parish or the schul. All three were in the same state-owned landmarked chapel. The Jews had it on Saturdays, and on Sundays, the cross behind the altar, blank on one side and with the corpse of Jesus on the other, would be flipped around depending on whether Protestants or Catholics were about to celebrate a mass. On a Sunday afternoon, any or all of them might come to my house or I'd go to theirs; neither was nicer, because we all lived the same way.
This incomplete version of Roosevelt Island is often forgotten when stories are written about how the island is "finally" being finished. But if progress is counted in high-rent high-rises of questionable architectural provenance, then the building I lived in, designed by Josep Luis Sert according to the latest principles of efficient design and as part of a utopian architectural vision of the future, is a sort of regression I can get behind.
I was, like many Islanders present and past, perpetually grumpy about every new building that went up. The reason today is a good day for those of us who love Roosevelt Island is because a different kind of change is taking place there now, one more in tune with the spirit of the place. It's something interesting, futuristic, and idealistic. And that's really what that strange island has always been all about.