Saturday, October 8, 2011

Governors Island


Although a few locations in Brooklyn and around New York Harbor have amazing unobstructed views of Lady Liberty, without exception, my favorite viewing spot is Governors Island. Accessible only by ferry from June through the end of September, this little 172-acre arts-and-recreation island [103 acres were added in 1912 with landfill excavated from the Lexington Avenue subway line] has a delightful park and 2.2 mile paved pathway, which pedestrians and cyclists circumnavigate for awesome views of three Manhattan boroughs. 
 
Governors Island has been officially recognized as the birthplace of the state of New York in 1624.  Prior to that, of course, a few other sovereigns had dibs on this prime piece of real estate, which also addresses the curiosity of where the name originated.  Due to the plentiful trees like hickory, oak, and chestnut, the natives called the island Pagganck, or "Nut Island."  It was 'purchased' for private use in June 1637 [for two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails], and called  Nutten Island [translated from Dutch] until 1784, when it was officially named Governors Island by the British who gained control for 'His Majesty's Governors.' 

Fast forward to the War of Independence and the realization that a coastal defense would be helpful in this geographic area.  By 1800 when New York transferred Governors Island to the United States for military use, construction had already begun on forts and defenses.  The island's military importance continued until about 1966, when it became the largest Coast Guard base.  Remnants of this installation, which had about 3,500 residents, remain visible in deserted buildings, placed like tombstones throughout the interior of the island. These creepy deteriorating buildings are an anachronism that detract from the beautiful open space and views along the perimeter.



When the Coast Guard left in 1996, "President Clinton designated 22 acres of the island, including the two great forts, as the Governors Island National Monument." [See nps.gov]  The federal government sold the remaining 150 acres of Governors Island to the people of New York for about a dollar [not much appreciation from the ax-and-beads price....] with the condition that it be used only for public benefit. This condition has created some economic and political debate.  

Without the ability to create casinos, high-priced condominiums, or resorts, the suitable alternative resulted in a great picnic, art, and outdoor space. Dave Matthews has a place to perform and former officers' quarters now house art exhibits along a tree-lined path. Gourmands can come across the harbor to pay $75 for an all-you-can-eat barbecue, or they can bring a picnic and enjoy a good book, like I did.  You can rent bikes or bring your own; you can buy a picnic or bring your own. You can relax in a hammock or an Adirondack chair, or actively explore the old fort and read the occasional placard detailing the island's history.