Quick. Picture a map of New York City. You can probably pick out all five boroughs without much hassle. But what about those places that don’t really stand out on a map?
Located in between Queens and Manhattan sits Roosevelt Island, a two-mile long island that runs the distance of East 46th to East 85th Streets. It’s technically part of Manhattan, and is easily one of the most forgotten places in New York City.
I mean no disrespect to the residents of Roosevelt Island. It’s just that I (and no doubt many others) had no idea what was on this island. It wasn’t until I had to take the F train one day that I even realized it existed. I remember asking my friend if people live on Roosevelt Island, since it’s just in such an odd area, and I never hear about it.
Roosevelt Island, like the rest of the five boroughs, has a long history dating back to the 1600s It’s been used for everything from hospitals to prisons, and today is home to more than 10,000 people. Previously it was known as Minnehanonck, Hog Island, Blackwell’s Island, and Welfare Island. In 1971, it was officially renamed Roosevelt Island after FDR.
Of course, Roosevelt Island has been in its fair share of movies and shows. The Roosevelt Island Tramway was part of a pivotal scene in Spider-Man, and was featured in shows like White Collar and America’s Next Top Model.
I hopped the F train and got off at the Roosevelt Island stop, not really sure what to expect. I knew that there was an abandoned smallpox hospital, a lighthouse, and some cool views of Manhattan. As it turns out, you can also drive over the Roosevelt Island Bridge for the only vehicle access to the island from Queens.
First up, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. Located on the south end of the island, the park has plenty of beautiful views of Manhattan, combined with cherry blossoms and…an abandoned smallpox hospital.
The abandoned Smallpox Hospital is probably (after the Tramway) the most famous part of Roosevelt Island. First opened in 1856, the hospital was used to treat those living with smallpox, which was mostly large groups of infected immigrants who had just arrived to New York. The hospital closed in the 1950s, and (like most things) fell into disrepair. It was named to the National Register of Historic Places in the 1970s. The hospital is actually going through a a stabilization project, and will be open to the public once work is complete.
In the meantime, the Smallpox Hospital is another creepy abandoned place to visit in New York City. I was a little taken aback by the fact that it’s sitting right there at the entrance to the park (behind a fence obviously), since I always pictured it to be at least a little off the beaten path. Given the size of the island, I guess the placement makes sense.
Once you get your fill of the Smallpox Hospital, you’re welcomed into the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park. I’ll admit (with shame) that I had an “ohhhhh….duh!” moment when I realized that, yes, believe it or not, the island is named after FDR.
“The Four Freedoms” name comes from the speech given by FDR back in 1941, where he listed four freedoms that “everywhere in the world” should enjoy: Freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear.
Park visitors can read a quote from the speech.
You can also check out a really cool sculpture of FDR.
After visiting Four Freedoms Park, your options are kind of limited. You can leave the Island (through Tramway or subway), or you can make your way north. It was such a beautiful day that I wasn’t about to just leave, so I started heading north.
Cornell Tech opened a new campus on the Island, which I got to walk through. There was a food place with coffee and other stuff.
It took a little longer than I thought it would to walk up to the northern tip of the island, but I was pleasantly surprised to see a growing residential area on Main Street. There were apartment buildings, parks, churches, and stores popping up everywhere. The new Cornell campus is only adding to the island’s popularity, so it’s nice to see growth in what was once a quiet area.
I finally made it to Lighthouse Park, home to the Blackwell Island Light. This picturesque stone lighthouse was built back in 1872, and has been an official landmark since 1976. The story of the lighthouse’s construction is filled with different legends, so I’m not really sure what the details are there. All I know is this was a cool spot to visit, and it made for some beautiful photos. The park itself is small, but it’s a nice destination area for those visiting the island.
Once I saw the lighthouse, I made my way back down to the subway area. I was debating taking the Tramway (I mean, of course?) but ended up hopping on the subway to head into Manhattan. Now I have an excuse to come back.
Visiting Roosevelt Island was a pretty cool experience. It reminded me a little of Governors Island, in that there’s a bunch of stuff to see, but not a lot to actually do. I still spent the entire visit marveling at how beautiful everything was, but I was kind of struggling to explain everything to my friends, other than to say it was cool to visit. The Island has definitely grown and is worth a visit, but I wouldn’t plan to spend an entire day there. Still, toss Roosevelt Island on your bucket list, and enjoy some of the nicest views you’ll find anywhere in the city!