Taking a subway from one island to another—that is something you can do only in a place like Manhattan. Manhattan itself is an island, and I was going from there to Roosevelt Island just across the East River. Coming up the long escalators from subterranean depths, I was stunned to see the river just steps away from the subway station’s entrance, with seagulls eying me from stone stanchions at the water’s edge. And from the shore, I found myself looking west, directly across at the United Nations and the Citycorp Building. Their lights and those of other tall buildings were just coming on as darkness fell.
Cars are banned from the island, so its thousands of residents enjoy a peaceful atmosphere unknown in the other boroughs. The modern apartment houses suggest a comfortable middle-class and upper middle-class lifestyle. But its present state belies the island’s earlier purposes. Even its name was different—Blackwell’s Island—after an early owner, from whom the city bought it in the 1800’s. At that time, the island’s buildings included a prison, a female almshouse, a charity hospital, an insane asylum and a smallpox hospital. All places of sadness and suffering clustered together on one small and isolated strip of land, they represented a Dickensian scene intensified by the awareness that so much human suffering was concentrated in a single locality.
Walking about, I passed not only the present-day buildings—the anonymous apartment complexes, a modern hospital, a long-term care facility—but also the remains of some of the early structures. All traces of the prison are gone, though an early photograph shows its massive stone exterior, with tiny windows cut into the walls. A long row of prisoners in striped uniforms stands in a double line in sad display for the camera. Two uniformed guards are seen stationed nearby. But remnants of other early buildings do survive—the smallpox hospital, for example, a roofless stone building now so overgrown that a tree has taken root in one of the lower rooms. Heavy wooden beams propped against the outer walls keep the structure from collapsing. Designed by James Renwick Jr., who also designed St. Patrick’s Cathedral, its three stories, punctuated with gothic windows, still retain a certain elegance. By the time I reached it, night had fallen and the walls were floodlit—a sign that efforts are being made to remember what survives of the island’s earliest institutions.
At the northern end, other remains include the octagonal stone insane asylum—as much a ruin as the smallpox hospital and perhaps even sadder in its connotations. In the hospital, there was a greater hope of recovery. The restored lighthouse (another Renwick building) stands nearby. A plaque notes that inmates from the penitentiary were involved in its construction—a form of punishment added to their confinement, as well as a source of cost-free labor for the state. In those days some of the staff of the several institutions lived on the island, a number of them in the still-standing farmhouse that was once the home of the Robert Blackwell who owned the island. The frame structure looked fragile in the shadow of the apartment houses that dwarf it.
Two late Victorian chapels still serve residents—sturdy buildings, one Catholic and the other Protestant. On my second visit, a Sunday, Mass was just ending at the Catholic chapel, and inside I noticed a touching plaque in memory of the wife of the “superior of the city home” on the island, who died in 1906. Returning, I chose not to take the subway, but opted instead for the aerial tramway that carried me high above the river to the Manhattan side—something like a flying subway car, replete with overhead straps to hold on to as we swung out high over the water. The island today, for all its comforts and serenity, suggests a certain sterility that made me glad to leave it. Its earlier incarnation, at least, reflected the reality of a world afflicted by poverty, imprisonment and disease. The same reality, unfortunately, exists today, with little to show in the way of improvement.