Tuesday, June 18, 2013

NYC Freedom: Roosevelt Island & The 9/11 Memorial

The East River from RI Tram
New York can feel incredibly overpopulated while commuting, walking around, or eating out, yet surprisingly, a few places exist where it feels like a serene urban oasis. For example, the cultural centers Goethe House and the Scandinavia House often have free exhibits, lectures, or movies with relatively few, if any, visitors, especially during the week. Some of the smaller museums or institutes also have interesting exhibits,  such as the Paley Center for Media, where I recently saw a Rolling Stones 50th anniversary tribute, or the International Center for Photography, which was practically empty on a recent Sunday.  

Underpopulated outdoor venues also exist.  In another blog I wrote about Governor's Island, open during the summer months with complimentary ferry service and spectacular views. Recently, I added another spectacular island to my list: Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island 

Roosevelt Island, at about two miles long and 800 feet wide, lies in the East River and is
Roosevelt Island lighthouse
accessible by cable car or subway. This beautiful stretch of real estate has had a few aliases over the years. Native Americans called it Minnahononck, and as it changed hands between the Dutch and the English, it became Hog's Island, Manning's Island, Flynn's Island, Blackwell's Island, and Welfare Island before becoming Roosevelt Island in 1973.  Developers decided that a name like Welfare Island may not be attractive to residents, so a name change and a memorial to FDR were planned. The name change took place, but the untimely death of the architect for the memorial put the installation on hold until March 29, 2010, when construction commenced.

Taking the Tramway from 59th street is a visual treat on a clear day. Apparently the
Former smallpox hospital
Tramway had some unfortunate hiccups in reliability that required a complete upgrade. Now, though, you can scoot across the East River in a matter of minutes, exit and take off walking north or south. To the north I saw very few people, and most of them were patients of the hospital convalescing in the sun. Historically, this island has housed a penitentiary, workhouse, lunatic asylum, various almshouses, and hospitals, including one for victims of polio and other chronic diseases and one for small pox. A lighthouse stands on the northernmost point of the island. 

Heading south on the trail brings views of open space for picnics and dodgeball, along with a power plant and some other industrial buildings. Farther along, I passed a  fenced-in compound for stray cats that a local woman maintains. She feeds the cats and the ducks, which were numerous and fat. I then entered a gorgeous wild space with wildflowers and native grasses that just beckons for a picnic on a lazy afternoon. At the southernmost tip of the island the FDR Memorial, celebrating his famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941, glistens in the sun. Before reaching the monument, I pass the vine-covered shell of the small pox hospital. This contrasts with the monument's stark white Mount Airy Granite [park staff allow no drinks on the granite because humans can be clumsy and inconsiderate].
After ascending a few steps, a long lawn with 120 little-leaf lindens leads to the monument.  Behind the monument, you can look out over the water soaking in the warm breeze, sunshine, and views of Manhattan, Queens, and Brooklyn.  I pondered the irony that a place of beauty memorializing freedom had for so long been a place a confinement.

The 911 Memorial

Across the river on Manhattan island, another memorial to freedom exists. For personal reasons I waited until the end of my time in New York before visiting the 911 Memorial. Despite this being a popular tourist destination with vast crowds and long entry lines, the layout and the design of the park creates a feeling of serenity and anonymity. The magnificent waterfalls and trees direct the focus on honoring those whose names are engraved in bronze. The emotional effect of seeing all those names on so much space cannot be conveyed fully in print or photograph.