It’s that little sliver on the map, smack dab between Manhattan and Queens, that’s sandwiched in there like a slice of tomato wrapped into the BLT of NYC. But despite clocking in at just 147 acres, Roosevelt Island has a history far bigger than its size. The diminutive isle has been home to the Canarsie Indians, Dutch settlers, hardened prisoners, smallpox ailments, asylum patients and even Hollywood movie sets. Historic buildings are being reworked into the island’s present, while grasping elements of its haunted past.
As a member of the five boroughs — it’s technically a part of Manhattan — the air is that of a well-kept secret or a low-traffic retreat. It’s more accessible than other such spots, like Governors Island, but just far enough away from bustling city life that an excursion here feels like a tiny vacation. The walkways and parks simultaneously allow curious guests to escape the crowded streets while keeping the spectacular view of it all just within reach. So, whether you’ve made the trip before, or are ready for a maiden voyage, we’re ‘bout to drop some summer-friendly knowledge. Here are 10 things you might not know about Roosevelt Island:
You can get there by skyway.
Constructed from 1972 to 1976, the Roosevelt Island Tram was created as a way for the island’s residents to speedily get to Midtown Manhattan. (Roosevelt Island wouldn’t get its own stop off the Q train until 1989. The F didn't even debut there until 2001.) And the cost to fly high over the East River? It’s still a mere swipe of your trusty Metrocard.
You’ve probably seen it in quite a few movies.
Even if you haven’t been on the tram for yourself, you might’ve spotted it on the big screen. When the Green Lantern is dead set on making Spiderman’s day absolutely terrible in the 2002 film, he blows up one of the towers holding up the tram cables, forcing Spiderman to choose between saving a tram car full of children or saving his beloved Mary Jane. (SPOILER ALERT: He saves both. Duh.)
You can bike there.
Unlike Governors Island, there’s a way to bike directly onto the island. (Or, ok, you can also take the bus.) Connected to 36th Avenue in Astoria, there’s a bridge that offers a quick trek over the East River and onto the island. Pro tip: make a day of it. Stock up on Greek pastries in Queens then pedal it on through to Roosevelt. You’re welcome, stomach.
Early New Yorkers thought it was the perfect place for a prison.
In 1832, the city built a penitentiary on the island. According to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, “to combat the rising rates of crime, poverty, and general threats to public health, the city began purchasing the islands surrounding Manhattan for the construction of institutions for rehabilitation. The theory, according to city leaders, was that institutions on quiet islands would be healthy and placid and conducive to caring for the sick or allowing criminals to reconsider their actions.”
Boss Tweed once served time in the island’s slammer.
The infamous politician was nailed on charges of corruption and spent a year locked up. And he wasn’t the only one. Jazz singer Billie Holiday and Broadway golden gal Mae West also did stints on Roosevelt Island.
Oh, and the historic Octagon building was once an infamous asylum...
This eight-sided curiosity may look harmless today, serving as the entrance for an apartment building, but it began its life as the central tower of the New York Lunatic Asylum when it opened in 1841.
...where an undercover reporter got herself committed.
Conditions inside were often brutal, and reporter Nellie Bly’s 1887 book “Ten Days in a Mad-House” revealed patients being grossly mistreated. In order to write the piece, Bly wandered around the streets of NYC, purposefully acting out and behaving irrationally, until she was picked up by police and taken to Bellevue. From there, she was transferred to the Asylum, where she took note of her own treatment, as well as other patients, before publishing the exposé.
It’s home to an incredibly eerie abandoned hospital.
If the asylum alone weren’t intriguing (or scary) enough, Roosevelt Island is also home to the bluntly named Smallpox Hospital. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972, the gothic building opened in 1856 as a place to treat New Yorkers infected with the disease. When it was abandoned in the 1950s, the whole thing fell into disrepair, giving it an incredibly creepy ethos. Now, it’s part of a $4.5 million project to re-stabilize the facade and open it to the public as a park.
It just got a fresh park, with a panoramic view of the city.
Speaking of parks, Roosevelt Island is also home to Southpoint Park, a well-kept (and extremely picture-friendly) green space just south of the hospital ruins. Frolick on the lawn, admire a giant bust of FDR or chill on the big steps right by the water. No matter what, you’ll be taking in an amazing view of Manhattan, Queens and a little bit o’ Brooklyn off in the distance.
It still has its own lighthouse.
On northern tip of the island, the Blackwell Island Lighthouse still stands tall above the river. The city commissioned the tower in 1872, but the construction remains mysterious. Legend has it that it was built by an inmate of the nearby asylum, where a plaque used to read: “This work / was done by / John McCarty / who built the light / house from the bottom to the / top all ye who do pass by may / pray for his soul when he dies.” Spooky.