New Yorkers are paying upwards of $3,000 a month to live at the former home of a smallpox hospital and an insane asylum, and a walk through the secluded island only 250 yards from Manhattan makes it clear why
Mark AbadiNov 28, 2018, 08.29 PM
Mark Abadi/Business Insider
Roosevelt Island is one of New York City's best-kept secrets.
The narrow, two-mile island between Manhattan and Queens used to house a notorious insane asylum and smallpox hospital, but now it's a peaceful getaway from hectic city life.
Highlights of Roosevelt Island include a serene park with gorgeous views of the Manhattan skyline, the cutting-edge Cornell Tech campus, and an aerial tram that goes 250 feet above the city.
Roosevelt Island is one of New York City's hidden gems.
The tiny island in the East River is technically a part of Manhattan, but spend one minute on the narrow sliver of land and you'll feel like you're a world away from the bustling city.
Once home to a notorious insane asylum, a prison, and an abandoned smallpox hospital, Roosevelt Island now boasts idyllic green spaces and gorgeous views of the city from perspectives most visitors never see.
The streets are blissfully quiet and mostly free of cars and pedestrians, providing residents and visitors with a much-needed change of pace from city life. It's no surprise why one local spokesman called Roosevelt Island "an oasis in the metropolis."
I visited Roosevelt Island on a chilly autumn day and learned exactly why the neighborhood is considered one of New York's best-kept secrets.
Roosevelt Island is considered one of New York's best-kept secrets. Many New Yorkers may have heard of it, but not many could point it out on a map, and fewer have been there themselves.
The narrow island, nestled in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, is just two miles long and 800 feet wide.
The island offers views of the Manhattan skyline and the Upper East Side from angles most New Yorkers haven't seen.
Turn your head and you can see the Queens neighborhood of Long Island City, the site of Amazon's proposed HQ2.
There are a few ways to reach Roosevelt Island, including by subway.
But the more exciting option is the Roosevelt Island Tramway, which riders can take for the same price as a subway ticket.
The aerial tram takes passengers back and forth between Roosevelt Island and midtown Manhattan dozens of times a day. It rises 250 feet above the city, providing unique perspectives of city life below and making it a tourist activity in and of itself.
Even on the cloudy day I visited, the view from the tram was impressive.
After walking around Roosevelt Island for a few minutes, I could already see why it's so revered. The island was remarkably quiet and tranquil, with hardly any cars or pedestrians in sight.
Its insular calmness made hectic Manhattan seem miles away.
Even mundane scenes like this one felt a world apart. Where else in Manhattan will you find outdoor seating on a spacious, clean sidewalk?
Not to mention avant-garde buildings like Nisi, one of the only restaurants on the island.
There's one city bus that reaches the island from Queens, and residents also have access to the free, Roosevelt Island-only Red Bus, which makes stops throughout the island.
About 14,000 people live on Roosevelt Island, many of them in lavish apartment buildings like these. Rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the gentrifying neighborhood can easily exceed $3,000 a month.
That's a stark contrast from the island's hardscrabble roots. Before the island was developed, it was home to a prison, an insane asylum, and this smallpox hospital, which stood for 100 years before it was abandoned in the 1950s. It's now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Then there's the building known as the Octagon, another landmark with a sordid past. It used to be the entrance to New York City Lunatic Asylum.
In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly went undercover in the asylum to experience its horrid living conditions firsthand. In her landmark report "Ten Days in a Mad-House," she wrote that the asylum was filthy, crawling with rats, and freezing cold, and patients were forced to eat spoiled meat and drink dirty water.
Today, the Octagon is an apartment complex with an outdoor pool, private gym, and maid service.
Elsewhere on the island, you'll find interesting landmarks like Chapel of the Good Shepherd, built in 1888 …
… and history buffs will appreciate the Blackwell House, named for the Blackwell family that once owned the island. Built in 1796, the Blackwell House is the sixth-oldest house in New York City.
But the real star of the island is Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park on the southern tip.
You'll be greeted by a sculpture of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the island's namesake.
The pristine park offers a nice place to relax, as well as more breathtaking views of the city.
Nearby, the cutting-edge Cornell Tech campus shows how Roosevelt Island is hurtling into the future. The engineering campus is a joint venture between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
The 5-acre campus opened in 2017 and expansion plans are already underway. Construction of a hotel — the first on Roosevelt Island — has begun on the campus as well.
Despite its proximity to the heart of New York City, Roosevelt Island has managed to stay off the radar for most visitors, and even many New Yorkers. The last time it made major headlines was in 2015, when Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign from Four Freedoms Park.
Thanks to its seclusion and relative anonymity, Roosevelt Island will continue to be an "oasis in the metropolis."