A two-mile long sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, Roosevelt Island sits a mere 700 feet from Manhattan’s East Side. Still, many New Yorkers know nothing about Roosevelt Island’s expansive green spaces and unrivaled city views, not to mention the distinctive small town ambiance of this planned community.
“In a big city where people complain about isolation, Roosevelt Island is a stunning exception,” said Dick Lutz, editor of The Main Street WIRE and an island resident since 1981. “Here, you can’t walk an eighth of a mile to the supermarket without stopping four or five times to chat with someone you know.”
An Island of Many Names
Roosevelt Island was not always a residential community, and its varied history is reflected in the plethora of names it has carried through the years.
Once called Minnahononck by the Algonquin Indian inhabitants, the island was purchased in 1637 by the Dutch, who renamed it Varckens Eylandt or Hogs Island. In the 1660s, the British claimed and granted the land to Captain John Manning, the sheriff of New York. The island then became known as Manning Island. When Manning died in 1686, his stepdaughter renamed the island after her husband Robert Blackwell. Blackwell Island remained that family’s “country” getaway until 1828, when the City of New York bought it for $32,500 to house a penitentiary. This began the most storied chapter of the island’s history.
Soon the penitentiary was joined by the New York Lunatic Asylum and the Smallpox Hospital. The asylum was destroyed by fire in 1858 and rebuilt for $150,000 some years later. Actress Mae West was sentenced and served a ten-day jail term here for appearing in her play “Sex.” Noted journalist Nellie Bly famously faked mental illness and spent ten days in the insane asylum, which she described as “a human rat-trap.” As Blackwell Island came to have a connotation worse than today’s Rikers Island, city officials sought a new name after deciding to transform the location into a hospital complex. In 1921, it was christened Welfare Island.