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By Brett Malvin | Agent in New York, NY

Roosevelt Island: Manhattan's Asterisk

by Noah Diamond

Roosevelt Island, the tiny sliver of city which sits in the East River between Queens and Manhattan (from 46th to 85th), seems poised on the brink of a renaissance. Or perhaps renaissance is the wrong word, connoting a return to the high ideals of yore. Roosevelt Island, taking the long view, keeps getting better, partly because its origins are so base. The seventeenth-century Dutch called it Hog Island, because it was then devoted to the raising of swine. Since then, it has been called Manning’s Island, Blackwell’s Island, Wellfare Island, and (since 1973) Roosevelt Island. Historically, its uses have been generally unsavory – pigs, penitentiaries, a smallpox hospital, and what was once called a “lunatic asylum” – yet with pockets of charm, such as the 1796 Blackwell House, which still stands, and is one of the oldest residential buildings in New York.

Today, we think of Roosevelt Island as a sort of supplement to midtown Manhattan. It’s Manhattan’s asterisk. It’s not exactly Manhattan (though legally speaking it is considered part of Manhattan, and of New York County), but it is far closer to the city both in spirit and in distance than such other asterisks as Staten Island, City Island, and Marble Hill. The island’s status as a residential haven goes back only as far as 1969, when most of the current apartment buildings were planned. The famous Roosevelt Island Tramway, which whisks commuters back and forth to Manhattan in red cable cars high above the street, opened in 1976. Like the Staten Island Ferry, the Tramway is popular with tourists because of its views.

In recent weeks, the Roosevelt Island Tramway has reopened, after nine months of renovations. In addition to the expected beautification and technological updates, the tram is now an even faster commute: Three minutes, down from four and a half.

In the last couple of decades, Roosevelt Island's demographics have trended younger, largely because of a few buildings used as adjunct dormitories for East Side schools such as Hunter College. The Roosevelt Live concert series has also established the island as hipper than its old reputation suggests.

Roosevelt Island is on the cutting edge of green energy technology. For the last few years, Verdant Power has been experimenting with tidal power turbines, installed underwater in the East River, which could transmit clean electricity. The test run of this technology successfully delivered power to some Roosevelt Island buildings, and current plans call for all of Roosevelt Island – and, eventually, the whole city – to make the shift to underwater turbine energy.

Real estate on Roosevelt Island is significantly less exorbitant than in Manhattan proper. In the condominium building at 415 Main Street (completed in 2007), you can have a two-bedroom apartment with lots of amenities for around $800,000. (At the other end of the spectrum, a three-bedroom penthouse a few blocks away, at 455 Main Street, runs about $1.3 million.)

But despite the promise of Roosevelt Island’s future, the most interesting thing about the place, for me, is a whisper of its past. At the southern extreme of the island stand the remains of the smallpox hospital constructed there in 1856 by James Renwick (of St. Patrick’s Cathedral fame). Only the shell of the hospital remains, rising above the foliage like a ghost ship. It’s one of the most emotional images anywhere in the five boroughs. Since 2009, it’s been preserved, and officially open to the public, though it was the subject of countless unauthorized explorations before. It’s the only official New York City landmark that’s in ruins. It’s beautiful. Go see it.

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