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Roosevelt Island — the unusual corner of America

Ruins from the Smallpox Hospital
© ESB Professional / Shutterstock

Roosevelt Island is the decoration of the East River, which flows between Manhattan Island and Long Island. Located in the heart of New York City, it has a unique atmosphere and is completely different from the surrounding American spaces. Roosevelt Island, the size of which is slightly more than 0.5 cubic kilometers, can surprise and enchant at a glance.

Since the 17th century, this object has changed several names until it received the name of the 32nd President of the United States — Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Former names are Hog Island, Blackwell’s Island, and Welfare Island. In 1828, the site was bought by the New York authorities from a private owner for the construction of a prison and a psychiatric hospital. In 1935, the prison was closed, and the hospital also ceased to exist. The island received its current name in 1973.

Although there are a few attractions, you can walk around the entire territory in a couple of hours, and every year there are more and more tourists on Roosevelt Island. Those who have already visited these places are certainly planning a second trip. The whole secret lies in the special atmosphere and magical attraction, which, according to travelers' reviews, is inherent in some objects. For example, the ruins of an old hospital — they fit well into any photoshoot. 

Walking along the embankment, you can admire the iconic objects of New York that are of great pleasure. The United Nations Headquarters, the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building are clearly visible from the island. On the other side of the island, you can view the districts of Queens County: Astoria and Long Island City. You can also distinguish Williamsburg Bridge, skyscrapers in Brooklyn, and the Consolidated Edison power plant in Manhattan. 

The regular inhabitants of the island are gray squirrels, and there are a lot of them here. If you come across one of them, do not forget to take a picture — they are not like their relatives in other countries. There is something about them, not even American, but inherent in this island. Animals are not afraid of people and willingly take food from their hands. 

More than 12 thousand people live on Roosevelt Island. Basically, they live in several residential complexes that were built according to a master plan approved in 1969. The buildings use modern technology of two-story apartments, so elevators are provided here through three floors. This is a kind of architectural highlight.

TOP 5 things to do on Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island has iconic objects that one can consider its landmarks. Each of them is as unusual as the island itself as a whole. Here is the list of best things to see on Roosevelt Island.

View of Manhattan under the bridge on the island
Roosevelt Island Bridge © Alex Kie / Shutterstock

Roosevelt Island Tramway

The famous Roosevelt Island tramway, built in 1976, connects the area with Manhattan. There is no other type of connection between these two objects. The air route is about 1 kilometer long and has two stations. To travel on the tramway, you can use your metro card. Almost 76 meters above the ground await you for an extraordinary journey. The views of the East River and the Queensboro Bridge will impress each and every one. The tramway ride from Manhattan to Roosevelt Island is called the easiest yet most exciting ride in New York. Mind that after the recent reconstruction, you can enter the cabin in a wheelchair, and you can also take a bicycle with you.
Views from the cable car to Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island Tramway © agsaz / Shutterstock
Cable car over the street
Cable car on the island © Drop of Light / Shutterstock

Four Freedoms Park

Freedom of speech, Freedom of worship, Freedom from want, and Freedom from fear are the four human values ​​proclaimed by the 32nd President of the United States Franklin Roosevelt in 1941. The island is named after him, and the Four Freedoms Park is the main attraction for the locals. The area attracts attention with a luxurious open terrace lined with granite blocks. There is a bronze monument to the President in the park. From May to October, it hosts a variety of activities such as yoga classes and kite flying, literary readings, and musical performances. This is an excellent observation deck with magnificent views of the river and New York skyscrapers.
Slender row of trees in a young park
Roosevelt Park © turtix / Shutterstock
Young park
Concrete base of a young park © turtix / Shutterstock

The Octagon Tower — Welfare Island

In 1839, a mental health hospital was built in New York. The Roosevelt Island Octagon is a picturesque octagonal building that in those days, served as the main entrance to the clinic for the mentally ill. Today it is part of the modern residential complex "Octagon". On the ground floor, there is a public library. The structure is made of a special blue-gray stone quarried on the island. Survived by two fires and years of oblivion, it is the latest reminder of the grim facility, which housed about 2,000 people — twice as many as planned. Outbreaks of infectious diseases and high mortality among patients did not surprise anyone. The famous Charles Dickens and the reporter Nellie Bly wrote about these places — some of her works were used for the shocking Hollywood film Ten Days in a Madhouse. Because of the Octagon, Roosevelt Island even has an unofficial name — "The Welfare Island." But this seems to only make it more popular with tourists who want to see with their own eyes the remains of the first psychiatric clinic in New York and the United States.

Octagon on a clear May day
The Octagon Tower © Edi Chen / Shutterstock

Renwick Smallpox deserted hospital

Ironically, there was more than one hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York. The isolated position of the site facilitated the placement of such objects. Renwick Smallpox, a 100-bed smallpox hospital, opened in 1856. It is located in Southpoint Park. After 20 years, it was closed, and the building remained abandoned. Nowadays, for adventure seekers, the ruins of the hospital are a tasty object against which to take spectacular pictures. Unfortunately, no one is allowed to enter the dilapidated premises, but a glance from afar is enough to experience the whole range of feelings that travelers often talk about.

Abandoned hospital overgrown with greenery
Old hospital ruins © Ryan DeBerardinis / Shutterstock

Gothic Blackwell Island Lighthouse

Blackwell Lighthouse (15.2 meters high) was built in 1872 by James Renwick Jr., the architect who designed the largest neo-Gothic Catholic church in the United States — St. Patrick's Cathedral. The building operated until the 40s of the 20th century. Today it is a National Historic Place and one of the main attractions in New York. The lighthouse has been restored and even operating. There is a park around Blackwell, from which you can admire the views of the island.

Welfare Island Lighthouse and Roosevelt Island Lighthouse
Blackwell Island Lighthouse © Maya K. Photography / Shutterstock

Useful Tips

  • The Roosevelt Island Tramway runs from 6 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. (until 3:30 on weekends). The cabins drive up every 15 minutes. If you are driving towards the island, it is better to take a window seat on the left — in front or behind, on the way back — on the right, respectively. You should be very quick, but it is worth it to see all the fun.
  • Besides the tramway, you can get from Roosevelt Island to Manhattan and back by car. To do this, over the Roosevelt Bridge, you first need to get to Queens, and from there, over the Queensboro Bridge, to Manhattan. Furthermore, the island is home to the New York Underground station — Roosevelt Island (line F, connecting Manhattan and Queens).
  • Next to the tramway, there is a tourist information center, where you can find out in detail about all the interesting objects and buy a map of the island.
  • Four Freedoms Park is open 6 days a week from 9 a.m. to 5 p. m. and closed on Tuesdays.
Bird's eye view of the island
The Roosevelt Island © Emma_Griffiths / Shutterstock
  • To have a good meal on Roosevelt Island, check out the local Bread & Butter Market. This place justifies its name completely. Everything from sandwiches and salads to pizza and soup can be found here. In general, most of the restaurants and cafes, the number of which has been rapidly increasing lately, are located on Main Street.
  • It is prohibited to drive on the island. Guests are required to leave their private vehicles in the large multi-storey car park. This rule does not apply to locals and public transport drivers.
  • If you like to travel somewhere to take part in an interesting event or a vibrant festival, you should come to Roosevelt Island in the spring, when the Sakura Matsuri Cherry Blossom Festival takes place. This site is also very picturesque in the fall, when the Halloween holiday and the unusual tree-lighting ceremony begin. In summer, Roosevelt Island is intriguing, when in the Four Freedoms Park films are shown and live music sounds.