When you think of Roosevelt Island, riding the suspended red and white commuter tram across the East River probably comes to mind, but there is much more to this narrow isle than a scenic ride. That’s not to take anything away from the tramway because, in itself, it is spectacular. But, I suggest exiting the car to explore the island, if even for an hour or two before making the return trip to Manhattan.
Although Roosevelt Island appears to be its own parcel plopped between Manhattan and Queens, this two-mile long, 800-foot wide peninsula that stretches from 46th Street to 85th Street is indeed separate, but it’s also considered part of Manhattan.
Once the setting of prisons, poor houses, hospitals, and even an insane asylum, the island’s history dates back to at least the 17th century when the Canarsie Indians owned what was then Hog Island, later called Welfare Island. Named Roosevelt Island in 1971, it’s endured a host of improvements over the years with some significant ones in the past decade. One was the renovation of the Roosevelt Island Tramway (a massive undertaking that was completed in 2010), and another, the 2012 opening and dedication of Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to Franklin D. Roosevelt designed by renowned architect Louis Khan.
On the way to and from the island, you’ll discover some of the most captivating views anywhere in New York. You’ll be able to see the 59th Street Bridge up close, and clusters of skyscrapers that populate the East Side. But you’ll also be able to catch the Manhattan skyline from the Western Promenade of Roosevelt Island, and you’ll notice Queens in the opposite direction. Plus, since it’s a narrow island, you’ll spot water views no matter where you turn.
When you exit the tram, you’ll see the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s kiosk. Stop in, pick up a map, and ask any questions. The kiosk has limited hours but should be open on weekends.
There’s a handful of notable sights such as the Blackwell Island Lighthouse in Lighthouse Park, Chapel of the Good Shepherd (now the community center), the Octagon (the former insane asylum entrance that’s now part of an apartment complex), the Strecker Memorial Lab, and the spooky Small Pox Hospital (now in ruins).
At the southern end of the island, Four Freedoms Park is the must-see attraction. The vast open space acts as a respite from Midtown Manhattan, which hovers to the west. Meanwhile, the borough of Queens lies to the east.
I’d not been to Roosevelt Island in a few years, so recently, I took a day trip to see what had changed since my last visit. Not to my surprise, like much of New York City, there’s a lot of development happening. The project that’s creating all the buzz is Cornell Tech’s Roosevelt Island Campus. Originally scheduled to open this summer, the completion is supposedly coming this fall. This 12-acre campus will transform the culture and appearance of Roosevelt Island, and bring in scores of students.
Also slated in the coming weeks – ferry service will start connecting Astoria, Queens to Wall Street with a stop on Roosevelt Island. Currently, the only public transit options from the island to Manhattan are the tram and not always reliable F train. The Roosevelt Island Bridge provides cars and pedestrians access from the island to Astoria, but currently, there’s no way to drive a car directly from Manhattan – you have to go through Queens to get to Roosevelt Island. Plans are in the works for a dedicated bike ramp on the bridge too, which will introduce another method of transportation to Roosevelt Island.
I’m anxious to see what transpires on the island over the next few years. Exciting things are happening, and I think we’ll see more small businesses choosing to set up shop on Roosevelt Island. A few cafes and restaurants have already opened, and I expect more will follow.
Beat the crowds. I believe it’s a matter of time before everyone finds out about this (somewhat) hidden gem and adds it to their New York City itinerary. I encourage you to take a day trip to Roosevelt Island where you’ll feel as if you’ve left the city, but you’re a five-minute tram ride from Midtown Manhattan.
Pick up the tram at 59th and Second Avenue in Manhattan.The tram makes trips to and from Roosevelt Island about every 15 minutes. It does get crowded at times – the tram holds up to 110 passengers. The cost is $2.75 per trip (use your MetroCard), and the journey takes less than five minutes. (See hours of operation below.) And please note, there are no MTA booths at the stations, only machines to purchase a MetroCard.
- Sunday – Thursday: 6:00 AM to 2:00 AM
- Friday & Saturday: 6:00 AM to 3:30 AM
- Morning Rush Hours (M-F): 7:00 AM to 10:00 AM
- Evening Rush Hours (M-F): 3:00 PM to 8:00 PM