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Islands of New York City: Roosevelt Island
As one would guess, Roosevelt Island was not always known as Roosevelt Island. In fact over the past four hundred years it has gone through six name changes. From the Native American Minnahanonck, or “nice island,” to the Dutch name Varckens Island (meaning hogs island) to the English name Manning Island which became Blackwell Island, to American, Welfare Island and finally to the present, Roosevelt Island. Most of these names changes came as ownership was transferred from one party to the next, marking very distinct periods of history for the island which we now know as Roosevelt. Some of these names are descriptive; during the Dutch period, for example, the island was used to raise hogs. The period during which the island was called Blackwell seems coincidentally appropriate as it was certainly the bleakest. While the island was known as Blackwell it was the site of asylums and a penitentiary. The conditions were inhumane as was noted by English Writer, Charles Dickens. During his circuit through the United States Dickens visited the island in 1842 describing it, in a work known as American notes, as having a “lounging, listless, madhouse air.” Nelly Bly, one of America’s first female journalists, worked under cover at the lunatic asylum as a patient to report on its atrocious treatment of inmates.
Reformation of the island started in 1921. It was a severe reform, requiring a police raid to remove gang leaders from power and to suspend a bribed warden. The island was also renamed to reflect these changes; Governor LaGuardia renamed the island, Welfare Island. Plans developed in the mid-thirties to build hospitals for the chronically ill but by the Second World War all building ceased. Through the fifties the island’s structures deteriorated and fell into disrepair. In the sixties interest in the island was revived with a string of ambitious plans which were never entirely realized but brought positive change to the island. The Urban Development Corporation who leased the island from the City in 1963 renamed it Roosevelt Island after FDR, brought in residential buildings and restored some of the historic ones, such as the Chapel of the Good Shepherd and the Blackwell house. This blog post was composed using the following resources: the Roosevelt Island Historical Society website, Roosevelt Island, by Judy Berdy A separated place, by Elizabeth Trump Montgomery, and the annotated bibliography, Heritage of Roosevelt Island, compiled by our very own Susan Waide. Also, at the Bowery Boys: New York City History weblog you’ll find lots of interesting stories about Roosevelt Island. This interesting timeline illustrates the island's history nicely. There are far more islands with fascinating stories in the waters of New York City, but this will be the conclusion of the island series. I’m actually off to visit another set of islands far away in the Pacific Ocean and will be returning mid-April. See you then!