The tram ride from 59th Street and Second Avenue to Roosevelt Island and the newly-opened Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, a project which has been in the works for forty years, takes a little over three minutes.
Roosevelt Island, formerly called Blackwell's Island, was once where they quarantined people with contagious diseases. The shell of the former Smallpox Hospital on the southern end of the island is still there, illuminated at night. If you're in Manhattan looking out over the East River, you can see this beautiful Gothic building designed by James Renwick Jr, the same architect who designed St. Patrick's Cathedral. The building, which later became a nurse's school, was abandoned in the 1950's.
Former Smallpox Hospital, Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island is two miles long, a mini-city full of apartment buildings, hospital, a few restaurants, churches, tennis courts, and even an organic garden. The tram offers a perfect bird's eye view of the island all the way from the lighthouse on the northern end to the new Memorial on the southern tip. I walk south past the beautiful shell of the old Smallpox Hospital which looks like an old castle ruin with its crenelated walls and Gothic window frames. A bicyclist peddles by.
Before the entrance to the new park are five large copper beech trees. I climb a flight of wide granite steps to a spacious park lined on both sides with double rows of linden trees. They frame a lawn with giant white granite walls sloping down the island's edge. I walk under the trees towards an imposing granite structure at the tip of the island. The stone is as grey as the sky. It is beautiful and absolutely silent, a true oasis just a river's length away from bustling midtown and the FDR drive, where cars I cannot see but hear rush north and south. The cold whips off the water.
In 1973, architect Louis Kahn designed this Memorial to celebrate President Roosevelt's vision for a better world, but he passed away suddenly in 1974, and the plan died with him. In 2005, the project was revived with both private and New York State and City funding and built at a cost of $53 million. It's easy to see where the money went -- to begin with, the space is huge, blocks of granite are everywhere, all those trees had to be shipped in and planted, a lawn created, and then of course, the "Room," which is what Kahn called the area he designed for the very tip of the island. The Room is a massive three-sided wall of granite blocks, each weighing 36 tons and set one inch apart, so visitors can peer through to view the city and river. Of course, no peering through spaces is necessary because the fourth wall of the room is an unobstructed view of the East River and the United Nations, very appropriate because Franklin D. Roosevelt was the UN's founder, and it was he who suggested the term, "United Nations."
As I walk towards to "Room," I come face to face with a 1,000-pound imposing bronze bust of President Roosevelt, many times larger than life-size. I can't help myself -- I reach up and touch his chin. I wonder if Roosevelt's chin will eventually be as shiny and golden as the nose so many people have rubbed on the Hans Christian Anderson statue in Central Park. After a while, I walk to the very southern tip of the park and stare out at the river which laps peacefully against its new granite embankment. I turn to head back and am staring at a the backside of the bronze bust, a huge granite slab with an inscription from Roosevelt's Four Freedom's speech:
In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. The third is freedom from want, which means that every nation much endeavor to create a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants.
The final freedom, freedom from fear, is perhaps the most powerful idea. It suggests that we should all be able to focus on making dreams reality rather than protecting the real property and objects we already possess.
Pondering Roosevelt's words, I arrive back to the tram entrance and am about to return to Manhattan just as a shuttle bus pulls up. It's a nice day and I'm not ready to go home, so I get on the bus -- for 25 cents, exact change -- and take it to the other end of the island to see the lighthouse built there in 1872 and now surrounded by a beautifully sculpted park.
Unfortunately, the area is fenced off as Hurricane Sandy did some damage there.
I decide to walk back to the tram and am ambling along the east side of the river path, when I suddenly hear singing. This isn't all that surprising because its Sunday morning, but what is surprising is that as I get closer to the sound, I also hear tambourines and clapping. It's Gospel music! Am I hearing things? On Roosevelt Island?
In front of me is a small stone church with a slate roof and a greenish cooper steeple. A sign out front says Dayspring Church. The singing is more animated now. I tiptoe to the entrance, open the door and see a small congregation singing, clapping, and keeping the beat with tambourines as a band in the front of the alter plays a gospel hymn. A woman standing at the entrance smiles and motions for me to enter, directing me to one of the pews. Soon, along with the rest of the congregation, I am clapping and tapping and singing my heart out.
To Get to Roosevelt Island:
Take the 4, 5, or 6 train UPTOWN from Grand Central Terminal. Exit at 59th Street
and walk three blocks EAST to Second Avenue. Board the tram, which runs about every 10-15 minutes. You can use your MetroCard to pay for the ride (the same as the cost for a subway ride). Exit at the only stop, Roosevelt Island