The island was called Minnehanonck by the
Lenape and Varkens Eylandt (Hog Island) by the
Dutch during the colonial era and later Blackwell's Island. It was known as Welfare Island when it was used principally for hospitals, from 1921 to 1973. It was renamed Roosevelt Island (in honor of
Franklin D. Roosevelt) in 1973.
Roosevelt Island is owned by the city but was leased to the
New York State Urban Development Corporation for 99 years in 1969. Most of the residential buildings on Roosevelt Island are rental buildings. There is also a
cooperative named Rivercross and a condominium building named Riverwalk. One rental building (Eastwood) has left New York State's
Mitchell-Lama Housing Program, though current residents are still protected. It is now called Roosevelt Landings. There are attempts to privatize three other buildings, including the cooperative. The
New York City Fire Department also maintains its Special Operations Command facility at 750 Main St. on the island.
17th and 18th centuries
In 1637, Dutch Governor
Wouter van Twiller purchased the island, then known as Hog Island, from the
Canarsie Indians. After the Dutch surrendered to the English in 1664, Captain John Manning acquired the island in 1666, which became known as Manning's Island, and twenty years later, Manning's son-in-law, Robert Blackwell, became the island's new owner and namesake. In 1796, Blackwell's great-grandson Jacob Blackwell constructed the
Blackwell House, which is the island's oldest landmark,
New York County's sixth oldest house, and one of the city's few remaining examples of 18th-century architecture.
Through the 19th century, the island housed several hospitals and a prison. In 1828, the City of New York purchased the island for $32,000 (equivalent to $789,624 in 2021), and four years later, the city erected a
penitentiary on the island; the Penitentiary Hospital was built to serve the needs of the prison inmates. By 1839, the
New York City Lunatic Asylum opened, including the
Octagon Tower, which still stands but as a residential building; it was renovated and reopened in April 2006. The asylum, which was designed by
Alexander Jackson Davis, at one point held 1,700 inmates, twice its designed capacity.
Blackwells Island (now known as Roosevelt Island) from the East River, c. 1862
In 1852, a
workhouse was built on the island to hold petty violators in 220 cells. The
Smallpox Hospital, designed by
James Renwick, Jr., opened in 1856, and two years later, the Asylum burned down and was rebuilt on the same site; Penitentiary Hospital was destroyed in the same fire. In 1861, prisoners completed construction of Renwick's
City Hospital (renamed Charity Hospital in 1870), which served both prisoners and New York City's poorer population. In 1877, the hospital opened a School of Nursing, the fourth such training institution in the nation.
During the impeachment process of
New York State Supreme Court Justice
George G. Barnard in 1872, the first charge that the New York City Bar Association brought against Barnard was that he discharged at least 39 prisoners from the Blackwell's Island penitentiary before their sentence was expired.
The 20th century was a time of change for the island. The
Queensboro Bridge started construction in 1900 and opened in 1909; it passed over the island but did not provide direct vehicular access to it at the time. In 1921, Blackwell's Island was renamed Welfare Island after the
City Hospital on the island. In 1930, a vehicular elevator to transport cars and passengers on Queensboro Bridge started to allow vehicular and trolley access to the island.
Federal funding for redevelopment came from the
New Community Act. In 1976, the
Roosevelt Island Tramway opened, connecting the island directly with Manhattan, but it was eight years before the New York State legislature created the
Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) to operate the tramway, with a nine-person board of directors appointed by the Governor, two suggested by the Mayor of New York City, and three of whom are residents of the island. The tramway was meant as a temporary solution to the then-lack of subway service to the island, which began in 1989 with the opening of the
Roosevelt Island subway station, serving the F and <F> trains.
On June 24, 2019, the
Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) published an open call for artists to create a memorial for journalist
Nellie Bly. Bly's investigative reporting about the abusive treatment at the New York City Insane Asylum at what was then called
Blackwell's Island, led to new forms of journalism as well as the reform of New York City institutions. In October, a committee of RIOC employees and community leaders selected The Girl Puzzle proposal by American artist
Amanda Matthews. The public art installation of a plaza featuring bronze sculptures, stainless steel spheres and a fully accessible walkway was planned for unveiling in 2021.
Though small, Roosevelt Island has a distinguished architectural history. It has several architecturally significant buildings and has been the site of numerous important unbuilt architectural competitions and proposals. The island's master plan, adopted by the New York State
Urban Development Corporation in 1969, was developed by the firm of
Philip Johnson and
John Burgee. The plan divided the island into three residential communities, and it forbade the use of automobiles on the island; the plan intended for residents to park their cars in a large garage and use public transportation to get around. Another innovation was the plan's development of a 'mini-school system,' in which classrooms for the island's public intermediate school were distributed among all the residential buildings in a campus-like fashion (as opposed to being centralized in one large building).
The first phase of Roosevelt Island's development was called "Northtown". It consists of four housing complexes: Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood (also known as the WIRE buildings). Rivercross is a
Mitchell-Lama co-op, while the rest of the buildings in Northtown are rentals. Eastwood, the largest apartment complex on the island, and Westview were designed by noted architect
Josep Lluis Sert, then dean of
Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Eastwood, along with Peabody Terrace (in Cambridge, Massachusetts), is a prime example of Sert's high-rise multiple-dwelling residential buildings. It achieves efficiency by triple-loading corridors with
duplex apartment units, such that elevators and public corridors are only needed every three floors. Island House and Rivercross were designed by Johansen & Bhavnani. The two developments were noteworthy for their use of pre-fabricated cladding systems.
Subsequent phases of the island's development have been less innovative, architecturally. Northtown Phase II was developed by the
Starrett Corporation and designed by the firm, Gruzen Samton, in a pseudo-historical post-modern style. It was completed in 1989, over a decade after Northtown. Southtown (also referred to as Riverwalk by the developers) is the third phase of the island's development. This phase, also designed by Gruzen Samton, was not started until 1998 and is still in the process of development. When complete, Southtown will have 2,000 units in nine buildings.
Main Street on Roosevelt Island
The Octagon, one of the island's six landmarks, was restored in April 2006, and the national landmark building is now a high-end apartment community. It also houses the largest array of solar panels on any building in New York City. When The Octagon opened its doors, many young, affluent tenants started to occupy the studios and one-, two-, and three-bedroom units; 100 of the units therein are set aside for middle-income residents.
In 2006, ENYA (Emerging New York Architects) made the island's abandoned southern end the subject of one of its annual competitions. In addition to
Louis Kahn's 4-acre (1.6 ha)
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park at that tip, whose public dedication on October 17, 2012 was tangled in litigation, the island has also been the site of numerous other architectural speculations.
Rem Koolhaas and the
Office of Metropolitan Architecture proposed two projects for the Island in his book "Delirious New York": the Welfare Island Hotel and the Roosevelt Island Redevelopment Proposal (both in 1975–76). That proposal was Koolhaas's entry into a competition held for the development of Northtown Phase II. Other entrants included
Robert A. M. Stern, and
Oswald Mathias Ungers.
As of 2013[update], six of the Southtown buildings, with a total of 1,200 units, have been completed. Residential development of Southtown has brought new retail businesses to Roosevelt Island, including a
Starbucks and a
Duane Reade. Roosevelt Island has long had a limited variety of restaurants; however, as a result of Southtown development, four new restaurants – Nonno's Focacceria (opened January 2008), Fuji East (opened April 2008), Riverwalk Bar & Grill (operational 2009–2018), and Pier NYC (operational only in 2012) – appeared on the West Promenade.
Although Roosevelt Island is located directly under the
Queensboro Bridge, it is no longer directly accessible from the bridge itself. A trolley previously connected passengers from Queens and Manhattan to a stop in the middle of the bridge, where passengers took an elevator down to the island. The trolley operated from the bridge's opening in 1909 until April 7, 1957. Between 1930 and 1955, the only vehicular access to the island was provided by an elevator system in the Elevator Storehouse that transported cars and commuters between the bridge and the island. The elevator was closed to the public after the construction of the
Roosevelt Island Bridge between the island and
Queens in 1955; the elevator was demolished in 1970, but a similar elevator ran from the Queensboro Bridge to the island as late as 1973.
In 1976, the
Roosevelt Island Tramway was constructed to provide access to Midtown Manhattan. The tram was closed from March to November 2010, during which time all of the components of the tramway, except for the tower bases, were replaced.
Roosevelt Island's residential community was not designed to support automobile traffic during its planning in the early 1970s. Automobile traffic has become common even though the northern and southern tips of the island remain
car-free areas. Visitors can access the island by car over the Roosevelt Island Bridge but must park in the Motorgate Garage for overnight stays or in metered roadside spaces for short-term visits.
Q102 route, operating between the island and Queens, obviates the need for automobiles to some extent. However,
RIOC operates the
Red Bus, a free on-island shuttle bus service. The service uses easily visible bright red buses, and competes directly with the Q102 in connecting apartment buildings to the subway and tramway.
Roosevelt Island has been served by
NYC Ferry's Astoria route since August 2017. The ferry landing is on the east side of the island near the tramway station.
2000 US Census
As of the 2000 US Census, Roosevelt Island had a population of 9,520. Fifty-two percent of the population (4,995) were female, and 4,525, or 48%, were male. The population was spread out, with 5% under the age of 5, 20% under the age of 18, 67% between the ages of 18 and 65, and 15% over the age of 65.
The median income was $49,976. 37% had an income under $35,000. 40% had incomes between $35,001 and $99,999, and 23% had an income over $100,000.
55% of the total households were family households, and 45% were non-family households. 17% of the residents were married couples with children, and 19% were married couples without children. 36% of the households were one-person households, and 9% were two or more non-family households. 3% were male-based households with related and unrelated children, and 16% were female-based households with related and unrelated children.
In addition to several
Christian denominations, the island is home to two
Jewishsynagogues, and as of 2019, a
mosque via the Islamic Society of Roosevelt Island. In September 2017, Chabad of Roosevelt Island, the island's
Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish congregation, launched a Chabad Jewish student organization in concert with the launch of Israeli-affiliated Cornell Tech, seeking to provide for the spiritual needs of international students from
Between the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, Roosevelt Island saw a 9% growth in the percentage of residents who identified as Asian. A large proportion of this growth has been driven by Chinese
international student enrollments which skyrocketed following the
financial crisis of 2007–2008, seeing local schools such as
Columbia University receiving the fifth-largest enrollment of Chinese students in the United States during the 2014–2015 school year. The Chinese student and young professional population on the island has led to an increase in the number of businesses accepting payments via
Mainland China mobile applications, as well as restaurants featuring regional Chinese cuisine and Chinese-language religious outreach.
Garbage on Roosevelt Island is collected by an
automated vacuum collection (AVAC) system using a system of 22-inch (560 mm)
pneumatic tubes that collects 10 short tons (9.1 t) of trash each day; this is one of the world's largest AVAC systems.
Since 2003, Roosevelt Island has not had its own fire station.Engine Company 261, in
Long Island City, was near the Roosevelt Island Bridge and served the island until mayor Michael Bloomberg closed it, and five other stations, on May 26, 2003. There was controversy over the firehouse's closure, as Community Board 8 had not been sufficiently notified in advance; a
New York Supreme Court judge subsequently ruled that the closure was illegal. In 2019, mayor Bill de Blasio's office told reporters that the island had "additional resources in place in the event they are needed for an emergency."
There are four recreational fields on Roosevelt Island:
Capobianco Field, located south of the Roosevelt Island Bridge ramp; measures 175 by 230 feet (53 by 70 m)
Firefighters Field, located next to the ferry terminal north of Queensboro Bridge; measures 303 by 178 feet (92 by 54 m)
McManus Field, located across from the
New York City Department of Sanitation building at the north end of the island. As of 2019 it is currently closed for renovations. The park was renamed from Octagon Field in October 2019 to honor Jack McManus, the former Chief of the Roosevelt Island Public Safety Department.
Pony Field, located east of the Octagon; measures 250 by 230 feet (76 by 70 m)
On December 19, 2011, Mayor
Michael Bloomberg announced that
Cornell Tech, a
Technion-Israel Institute of Technology graduate school of applied sciences, would be built on the island. The $2 billion facility includes 2 million square feet of space on an 11 acre city-owned site, which was previously used for a hospital. Classes began off-site in September 2012 at the
Google New York offices, and the first classes on the Roosevelt Island campus began on September 13, 2017. The first phase of the campus includes main academic building, a graduate housing tower, and an innovation hub/tech incubator. Construction of a conference center and a hotel began in 2018.
United for Libraries Literary Landmark dedicated by the Empire State Center for the Book
New York Public Library operates the Roosevelt Island branch at 504 Main Street. The library began in a community room, then moved to its own building at 524 Main Street in 1979. In 1998, the library became a branch of the NYPL system. The current location at 504 Main Street opened in January 2021 and contains 5,200 square feet (480 m2).
On April 12, 2016, the Empire State Center for the Book dedicated a United for Libraries Literary Landmark plaque marking Roosevelt Island's literary connections.
The Roosevelt Island Garden Club has existed since 1975. Each gardener is assigned a plot and can choose to grow what they wish. The club is made up mostly of Island Residents that rent plots to grow all kinds of different plants. The membership is $65 a year and the wait list is extremely long. Visitors can view for free on Saturdays and Sundays.
Roosevelt Island has three dedicated news sources.
The Roosevelt Island Daily, is a community blog maintained by David Stone since April 2016.
The Roosevelt Islander, is a community blog maintained by Rick O'Conor.
The Main Street WIRE, was founded in 1979 by Dr. Jack Resnick and usually published about every two weeks (monthly in July and August).
George Appo - A pickpocket and con artist. A biographer provides a description of the penitentiary on Blackwell's Island in the later half of the 19th century as having lax security, with prisoners being able to escape if they knew how to swim.
1904 – In
short story "
The Cop and the Anthem," the main character, a homeless man named Soapy, schemes to have himself arrested so as to spend the harsh winter serving a three-month sentence in Blackwell's Island prison.
2007 – In the novel by
Cassandra Clare, City of Bones, the protagonist is drawn to the island for a showdown with the elusive villain, Valentine.
2022 - In the novel by Warren Mead, The Pox Academy, the main character, Lincoln, lives in a secret magic school on the site of the former
1932 – A
Paramount Pictures film entitled No Man of Her Own is released, a light comedy film starring Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Upon learning that Gable's character is not in South America, but instead learns he has negotiated a deal to serve 90 days and "he's across the river", Lombard's character then looks out of her hotel window to a view across the East River and the
Queensboro Bridge, later referring to this as "Blackwell's Island".
1966 – In the film Mister Buddwing, a sign posted on a bridge in the film reads "Stairway to Welfare Island".
Suzanne Pleshette, playing the character Grace, tries to throw herself off the bridge wearing nothing but a fitted trench coat and white ankle boots, before
James Garner's character saves her.
1994 – In The Professional, Mathilda Lando (played by
Natalie Portman) takes the Tramway to Roosevelt Island to seek asylum at what is implied to be the Spencer School; however, in the beginning of the film the school's head mistress states on the phone that the school is located in
Wildwood, New Jersey.
1997 – The film Conspiracy Theory was shot on location in and around New York City, including Roosevelt Island.
2001 – The fictional "Saint Adonis Cemetery" in the film Zoolander was built on Roosevelt Island.
2002 – Near the end of the film Spider-Man, the
Green Goblin blows up the Roosevelt Island side tram station and leaves a group of children hanging inside one car. He also brings
Spider-Man down to fight with him in the abandoned
Smallpox Hospital on the island. The tram and the island make other appearances in Spider-Man media. The island is featured in the
video gameSpider-Man 2. In The Amazing Spider-Man #161 and #162, appearing on the cover of the latter, and Spider-Man and Hulk fight on Roosevelt Island in The Amazing Spider-Man #328.
2005 – Roosevelt Island is the setting for the film Dark Water by Brazilian director
Walter Salles, where Dahlia (
Jennifer Connelly) moves into a low-rent apartment with her daughter and then is terrorized by the ghost of a girl that used to live upstairs.
2007 – In the film The Brave One, starring
Jodie Foster, a scene takes place at the Roosevelt Island parking lot. The film mentions the island several times.
1958 – In the "Violent Circle" episode of Naked City (season 1, episode 5), Detective Halloran (
James Franciscus) poses as a mental patient in a hospital mental ward on the Island to uncover a murderer.
1963 – In the "Carrier" episode of Naked City (season 4, episode 29), a woman (
Sandy Dennis) escapes from a chronic care hospital on Welfare Island – as it was then called – to carry a rare disease through New York City.
1993 – in the "American Dream" episode of Law & Order (
season 4, episode 8), a body is found during archaeological excavation on Roosevelt Island, forcing a new trial of a Wall Street broker (
Željko Ivanek) who had been convicted based on a witness claiming they had buried the body in New Jersey in the early '80s.
2005 – In the
second season episode of CSI: NY called "Dancing with the Fishes", a crime is committed inside the Roosevelt Island
2010 – On the TV show 24, NY CTU is based on Roosevelt Island.
2011 – The television series Unforgettable takes place in part on Roosevelt Island.
2012 – The season three finale of White Collar is set largely on Roosevelt Island, including a stunt in which the show's protagonist jumps midair between Tram cars to avoid being captured by the FBI.
2013 - The second season episode "On The Line" of Elementary opens with a woman shooting herself on the
Roosevelt Island Bridge and staging it to look like a murder in order to frame the man who got away with killing her sister.
2015 - In
season four, episode sixteen of the
TruTV show Impractical Jokers, "Captain Fatbelly", a punishment is filmed on the Roosevelt Island Tram. During the scene Joe Gatto performed several strange tasks while riding on top of the tram dressed as the superhero "Captain Fatbelly".
2015 – The second season of
FX's series The Strain has several scenes which take place on Roosevelt Island.
2016 – In the third season episode '"P is For Pancake", of
TV Land's series Younger, a potential love interest for
Hilary Duff's character is rebuffed when he is revealed to be a resident of Roosevelt Island.
2019 - The fourth season episode "Maximum Recreational Depth" of Billions, first broadcast on April 21, features a meeting between Wendy Rhoades and Taylor Mason at the FDR Four Freedoms State Park, where they discuss Roosevelt’s State of the Union speech and the relationship between architect-designer
Louis Kahn and his son.
2019 - The seventh season episode "Into The Woods" of Elementary, first broadcast on June 20, has Joan meet with billionaire Odin Reichenbach at the
Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park; at the end of the episode, she and Sherlock meet him there again to confront him over sending them on a wild goose chase. The following episode, "Command: Delete", immediately follows up on this, continuing this meeting.
2008 – In the video game Grand Theft Auto IV there is an island resembling Roosevelt Island, named Colony Island. It also includes the ruins of a hospital, similar to the
Smallpox Hospital. There is also a replica of the tram available for players to ride.
2011 – Parts of the video game Crysis 2 take place on Roosevelt Island.
1973 – In the original video for
Pink Floyd's song "
Us and Them," Roosevelt Island appears during a lengthy sequence shot from the Queensboro Bridge.
2006 – The fictional high school which the main characters attend in the
GONZOanime series Red Garden is on Roosevelt Island.
2009 – On May 23, the island was the site of
Improv Everywhere's "MP3 Experiment Six". Approximately 4,500 people traveled to the island to take part in a performance art piece where the southernmost point of the island became a "battleground" for the re-enactment of a fictional melee between townspeople and an ancient wolf.
"Roosevelt Island Awakens to a Clinton Crowd", The New York Times, June 13, 2015. Accessed October 22, 2018. "Though the usual early-morning risers were already walking their dogs and stretching their legs as they strolled along the East River, this was not a typical Saturday on Roosevelt Island. At the southern end of the island, the residents found themselves bumping into hundreds of supporters of Hillary Rodham Clinton waiting in line hours before she was expected to give the kickoff speech of her 2016 campaign for president here.... The campaign was handing out tickets to the event to people standing in a line near Four Freedoms Park, which celebrates the famous speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt."
^Chaban, Matt A.V.
"Garbage Collection, Without the Noise or the Smell", The New York Times, August 3, 2015. Accessed July 28, 2017. "While vehicles still found their way onto the island, garbage trucks were largely banished, thanks to the pneumatic tube system, one of the largest in the world. It sucks up roughly 10 tons of trash from the island's 12,000 residents each day.... After they drop garbage down chutes in their buildings, it collects at the bottom until a trapdoor is activated, releasing the waste into 22-inch-wide red steel tubes that run underground."
"Octagon Field Renamed McManus, Tensions Remain", The Main Street Wire, October 8, 2019. Accessed July 19, 2022. "Last week, over a year after its abrupt closure last August, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) re-opened Octagon Field and re-naming it Jack McManus Field in honor of the recently retired Chief of the Island’s Public Safety Department (PSD)."
"Senior composes and plans original musical", The Ithacan, February 27, 2019. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Though a musical seems grandiose and monumental under the pageantry of performance and bright stage lights, every production begins with just an idea. For senior Jonah Bobo, the idea for him to write his own musical came nearly three years ago.... Hayat, a playwright and graduate from SUNY Purchase, grew up in Roosevelt Island, New York, a few houses down from Bobo, her brother’s friend."
"The Bank Teller’s Game - Michael Brodsky", Zeek. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Called by Library Journal 'one of the most important writers working today,' Michael Brodsky is very much a writer for an idealized tomorrow. He was born in the Bronx in 1951, and lives in the seclusion nearest to Manhattan, namely Roosevelt Island."
^"Biography". The History Makers. June 17, 2019. Retrieved August 11, 2020.
"Playwright Comes 'Home'",The Columbia Record,October 12, 1977. Accessed July 19, 2022. "Ms Childress now lives on the recently renewed Roosevelt Island a small community of modern apartment buildings and swimming pools in the middle of Manhattan's East River."
^"Billy, Coleen address 'racist' prenup photos",
ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, March 12, 2018. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Crawford also assured the public that he is familiar with racism, and said they mean no harm. 'I grew up in a very diverse city (Roosevelt Island), and had experienced bullying and racism in my youth because of my being "an Asian." Trust me, we meant no harm,' he said."
^"Mike Epps Unleashes His Wrath On A Heckler!!", Hip Hop News Uncensored, August 2, 2018. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Epps was born on November 18, 1970 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Epps family moved to Roosevelt Island, New York when he was young."
"Soprano Amanda Forsythe voices her love of opera", The Boston Herald, December 31, 2004. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Forsythe was elegant, poised, focused, and determined as she talked recently about her emerging career. She grew up on Roosevelt Island, alongside Manhattan, and sang in high school choirs without ever taking her vocal potential very seriously."
^Trott, William C.
"Hackett Goes To Sea",
United Press International, August 13, 1986. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Buddy Hackett loves his Roosevelt Island. He got up early Tuesday to be on the maiden voyage of a ferry that runs from the island down the East River to Wall Street on Manhattan. The rotund comedian lives on Roosevelt when in New York City and said he wanted to be on the ferry's 'maiden voyage because I want to go down in history like Christopher Columbus.'"
^Homme, Alexander (October 30, 2009).
"Roosevelt Island". Al Lewis was also known as the unofficial mayor of Roosevelt Island
"Sarah Jessica Parker’s New York life had a rocky start", New York Post, May 22, 2017. Accessed August 13, 2019. "Sarah Jessica Parker‘s early days in New York as a young actress were a struggle.... A pipe dream of moving to New York became a reality when the family read a New York magazine story on Roosevelt Island’s affordable housing options.... Once Parker’s family decided to make the move to New York, they applied for an apartment in one of the subsidized housing units and were granted one."