What Judith Berdy knows about Roosevelt Island could fill an encyclopedia – or ten. As President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and someone who’s lived on the island for 37 years, Judith knows all.
We met her at the Kiosk that was first built in Manhattan as the trolley car entrance at 59th Street and Second Avenue; then it was physically moved to Brooklyn as the entrance to the Children’s Museum; then it was moved again to become Roosevelt Island’s Visitor Center in 2007. Constructed in 1916, it is made of cast iron and terra cotta, and – as Judith boasted – “It has never had a leak or a crack.”
We hopped onto a free island bus which runs every 7 1/2 minutes during peak hours and is especially accommodating to older people. On the bus, Judith shared facts with us: 14,000 people live on the island, as do 2000 cats and 1000 dogs. The island has a branch of the New York Public Library, one supermarket, one public school, and one Post Office. There are no houses, just apartments – rentals, condos and co-ops.
Walking around, we saw everything from the firehouse to the public tennis courts. Our next stop was The Octagon, built in the 1830s, and now a stunning apartment house that once had a scandalous past life as a lunatic asylum. In 1887, ground-breaking reporter Nellie Bly babbled in tongues in order to get admitted. Once there, she wrote about the horrific conditions. In 1895, New York State closed it down.
We also passed baseball fields, basketball courts, and picnic areas. New to the island are one Duane Reade drugstore and one Starbucks. “This puts us in the big time,” Judith noted.
The Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance puts on performances and gives acting, dance and fitness classes for residents of all ages. In 2013, benches were installed along Main Street in the exact shape of the island. Islanders think these benches are as brilliantly designed as the iPhone.
On the tram coming home, we realized how magical Roosevelt Island is. This small village of serenity in the East River between Queens and Manhattan is a mere 300 yards from the most bustling city in the world! Go figure.