Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Roosevelt Island

The Smallpox Hospital ruins on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island.
Another shot of the landmarked Smallpox Hospital ruins.
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Another shot of the ruins.

This was as far as I could get to the Smallpox Hospital ruins.
The lawn of the Blackwell House at night.
The 1796 Blackwell House.
Another shot of the Blackwell family's 1796 home.
Another shot of the home.
One of two entrances to the 1889 Chapel of the Good Sheppard.
The Chapel of the Good Sheppard, with a door for males and another for females.

Another shot of the Episcopal chapel, now shared with the Catholics.
A plaque on the Blackwell House commemorates it's history.
I took a trip out to Roosevelt Island this past weekend. Even though it's right near where I live, it's still kind of hard to get to, and walking around the island, it seems as isolating now with its high-rise apartment buildings, and well-organized stores, library, and police station along Main Street, as it would have been a hundred years ago when it housed the terminally ill, prisoners, the poor and the insane. Walking along the towering, new, expensive-looking buildings, with there balconies and doormen, it's easy to point out the old landmark structures that preservationists have tried hard to maintain, and they all tell a story of how grim life must have been for the outcasts that used to inhabit this place.

I first went to the old church, which looks out of place in its modern surroundings, but seems to hold its own on its own little plot of land. The 1889 Episcopal Chapel of the Good Shepard, which is now also shared by the Roman Catholic parish of St. Frances Xavier Cabrini and serves as a general community center, is actually a rather odd-looking structure. Designed by Francis Clarke Withers, who also designed the Jefferson Market Courthouse tower on 10th Street and 6th Avenue, it doesn't have a main entrance, but rather two doors, with stairways that lead upstairs to the pews and altar, and two more stairways that lead to a dressing room in the basement. The two entrances, I later read, were so that male and female patients could enter separately. We've all heard the horror stories of how the very sick and handicapped were locked up, and hidden from the rest of society, and this island seems to epitomize it. Walking around here from the southern to the northern ends, I can't help but vividly picture the sheltered, shunned lives these poor forgotten souls must have led, and I can pretty clearly envision two lines of outcasts assembling for Sunday morning services in that old church.

To the northern edge of the island is the newly renovated Octagon, the former New York City Lunatic Asylum, which, when it was built in 1839, packed in 1,700 inmates, twice its estimated capacity. Its story is nothing new at all ... told time and again about old New York City buildings in the twentieth century. Abandoned in 1955, it was left to crumble and rot by the 1970s, until an effort was finally made to restore it after it was nearly demolished. It now has luxury apartments, and recently restored again in 2006, is now quite beautiful, with the old tower housing a fitness center, billiards room and conference space, and the famous spiral staircase refurbished.

On the south end of the island are the Smallpox Hospital ruins, designed in 1856 by James Renwick, Jr., the renowned architect that went on to give the city St. Patrick's Cathedral. They are the only ruins in the city that have been given landmark status, and they're a real fascination, to me at least. Each night they are lit up by the company that lights the statue of liberty, giving it the eery haunted house on the hill appeal. Supposedly, they have finally been opened to the public, but they weren't when I got there. Night had already fallen and a high fence closed off most of anything, other than one brick tower, the city lights flickering through the castle-like windows of the hallowed out structure. Through a hole in the plastic covering that draped the high fence I couldn't make out much, just to the right of me the top of the Empire State Building in red, black and yellow for the German Steuban Day Parade, and to my left the large neon sign of the Pepsi-Cola factory in Queens, where General Colin Powell had his first job.

While walking up and down the island I came to the old Blackwell House, built in 1796, the former residence of the Blackwell family who formerly owned the island (and who it was originally named for). It's now a museum, and a plaque on the wall outlined its history. Supposedly from 1826 - 1955 it housed the hospital and prison staffs. Imagine that being your job -- working in a forlorn hospital or prison and living in some crummy old house on a desolate island. Now, though, it's very nicely preserved, and the lush, green lawn that surrounds it, and seems to be very well taken care of, adds a bit of country serenity to the island (a big contrast to the city that surrounds it.) Since I'm in the city about 99% of the time, whenever I come across a little nature, I can just feel the fresh air enter my lungs -- it's a nice change of pace.

People who come to visit this city often love it so much because it is so exciting. For me, though, it's pretty much all I've ever known. I've lived on the Upper East Side on my own now for close to six years, and I'm used to something always going on, for better or worse. But being out on that island, even though it's a much nicer, trendier, even pretty desirable place to live, the very real feeling of isolation and loneliness seems to be as present now as I imagine it would've been a hundred plus years ago. It just shows you don't have to go very far to get a big contrast from the main island of Manhattan, and on that note I headed on home to rejoin the human race.

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