A New New Yorker’s Trip to Roosevelt Island

A history of sickness and health

| 09 Jul 2021 | 11:57

Roosevelt Island is not a place you immediately think of when you think “New York City.”

Recent development of Cornell’s Tech campus, a newly opened hotel, and the FDR Four Freedoms Park have made Roosevelt Island an attractive little sibling to the Upper East Side. The tram to and from the island is an oddity that everyone can enjoy, the open space is something to brag about. Stepping off of the F train on yet another sweaty city summer day, the feel of the neighborhood was almost suburban. People were lounging in hammocks and fishing from the East River, while the island itself is bookmarked on either side by the bustle of the Upper East Side and Astoria.

Roosevelt Island, formerly Blackwell’s Island and originally named Minnehanonck by the Lenape people, used to be known for something other than valuable city real estate away from the crush of city life. It was also called Welfare Island, so known because of the hospitals and asylums that operated on the island for decades. Conditions on the island were thought to be healing for sick patients, while keeping them away from the rest of the city’s population.

Four Freedoms Park sits alongside the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital, founded in 1856. The gothic structure has fallen into disrepair over the years, but a $4.5 million renovation project is underway to repair the ruins for public access. Beside a busy playground and splash pool is the former warden’s house of the New York City Mental Health Hospital, Blackwell House. All that remains of the Mental Health Hospital, the same one Nellie Bly exposed in “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” is the Octagon, now a part of a swanky apartment complex. The lighthouse at the northernmost tip of the island, built by convict labour in 1872, is being repaired. There’s also a Starbucks, a Duane Reade, and multiple playgrounds and sports fields throughout the island.

Smallpox Hospital

In New York, the city’s history is never far away from the present moment. From the names of our parks to the way our highways are built, it’s impossible not to recognize that people have come before us in every place. When the pandemic first began however, it felt unprecedented; generations of New Yorkers had never experienced something like it before. The city itself had. Roosevelt Island was a part of the story of epidemics like smallpox and other contagious diseases that tore through New York in the nineteenth century. Until the 1950s, nurses trained in the Smallpox Hospital before moving on to other New York City institutions. The island itself has stood the test of time against disease.

Roosevelt Island may not be the first place you think of when you think of New York City, but perhaps this past year it should have been; the revitalization of the area makes sense with what people have been drawn to this past year. It has always felt just a little bit removed from the rest of the city, and when the city was a sad and at times scary place to be, anything removed from it became desirable. In times of sickness previously, Roosevelt Island was home to the unwell. This past year, Roosevelt Island instead was a place the well wanted to escape to.

As a passing visitor, walking through the parks and playgrounds and ball fields of Roosevelt Island, I saw New York coming back to life after a year of sickness, poignantly, in a place that has experienced a history of sickness. Like the rest of New York, history isn’t far from us wherever we are, but perhaps no other place in the city is closer to the city’s history of sickness than Roosevelt Island.