Interesting History of Roosevelt Island


Located just a few miles away from Manhattan, New York, Roosevelt Island possesses a rich history. This Island has grabbed the attention of people from all over the world for decades. This island is home to a community of over fourteen thousand people. It serves as a connection pole between Manhattan and Queens. It got popular back in the days when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the president of the country, and thus the island got named after him.


In the past, this Island was once owned by a family called the Blackwell. But in the early 1800s, the New York Government bought the island in order to utilize it for the benefits of the state. The policymakers of the country agreed that this place could be transformed into something more than just a deserted land. So, they took over the place and started plans to change its infrastructure.

Even though this island had the potential to change the fate of the whole city, many governors couldn’t see this. For them, this place seemed appropriate to dump the unwanted filth of New York, its prisoners, and patients. They could not tolerate their prisoners inside the city. That is how they decided to shift them to this beautiful Island.

Soon after the New York State Government bought the island from the Blackwell family, they started making plans for the transformation of the place. Policymakers joined heads to come up with ideas to carry on their projects further to utilize this island. From prison cells to hospitals, blueprints of everything were generated. 

The Story of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary

The Story of Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary

By the year 1829, an institute, Blackwell’s Island Penitentiary, was built in the vicinity of this place to keep the felons of New York away from the main city. And although the building was originally planned to have a single block, only soon after its construction, its expansion started. This expansion, when started, found no end and the size of the penitentiary kept increasing due to the never-ending flow of prisoners. Not only that, but the felons themselves did the construction, and every sort of torture was done on the inmates of this so-called penitentiary.

Every single cell of the penitentiary was designed in the dimensions of 6 by 8 feet. Each cell was home to an inmate. They would treat the building as their own and carried out every single chore themselves. 

The island, even though, was a perfect place to keep the felons away from the city, its weather became a problem once it was filled. It got freezing in winters and fiery during the summers. The situation got so worse that the inmates started to die because of weather extremities. The government did not take any action on this misery. The felons didn’t get any choice except for living and working in a harsh environment.

Other than the penitentiary, the island also had some health care hospitals. Those included a Smallpox Hospital, an asylum, and a hospital for chronic diseases.

The Disaster of Lunatic Asylum

The Disaster of Lunatic Asylum

In the early 80s, the Municipal Pauper Lunatic Asylum was built on this lonely island. Mentally compromised people from all over America started to live there. This place became a living hell for every single person who spent their days in the crowded halls of this pauper asylum. In the early days of this place, it was run by the inmates of a penitentiary. The felons used to take care of the patients and provided them with day to day help.

The carelessness of the government did not go unnoticed by the population, and when the news broke that asylum is handled by inmates, protests began. People of New York came out on the roads demanding the rights of their fellow citizens. The state did not expect this backlash and was stuck in a hole.  

After a lot of criticism and protests, the charge of asylum was at last handed over to the doctors. But that did not change the living conditions of the mentally challenged citizens living there. In fact, it got worse. The people were tortured by the extreme conditions, and they had to suffer until after a journalist disguised as a patient debunked the situation of asylum in the media. It was after that news that the government decided to shut the asylum and replaced it with a Metropolitan Hospital in 1950.

The Success of Goldwater Hospital

One of the most important pieces of Roosevelt Island history is the Goldwater Memorial Hospital. This hospital stood out from the rest of the projects of Roosevelt Island as it was specifically designed for the chronically ill patients. Goldwater Memorial Hospital was like a home to people who faced any critical disease that required long term treatment. 

The doctors and researchers used to carry out studies in this hospital to get a better idea of chronic diseases. In the total chaos of Roosevelt, this project was somewhat successful.

The Unfortunate Smallpox Hospital

Smallpox Hospital

Another important piece in the history of Roosevelt Island is the infamous Smallpox Hospital. This hospital was built in order to keep the patients isolated during the outbreak of the viral disease.

Unfortunately, this project also turned out just like the other ones (a big failure). The patients were left at the mercy of no one. A lot of deaths occurred due to the pandemic, and people who survived had to face the worst living conditions. With no proper health system or nursing care in place, the patients struggled to their utmost limits.

Finally, when the disease subsided, this hospital was closed. The remnants of this haunted hospital are still present on the land of Roosevelt as a memory of that horrifying pandemic.

The Welfare Island

This rocky road of the development of the abandoned island kept going on. The government changed its name from Roosevelt Island to Welfare Island, thinking it might change something. This roller coaster finally crashed in the mid-1900s when everything shattered.

Every project on this place started falling apart one by one. The island was left deserted just like it was once found. Every institution was closed and the ones that were still open and functional faced hardships of all kinds. 

The Goldwater Housing Society and Its Destruction

When Nelson Rockefeller got elected and got the hold of the New York Government, he decided to change the fate of the lonely Welfare Island. He signed the lease of an affordable housing society named Goldwater Project with the collaboration of the mayor of that time. 

According to the agreement, two thousand flats were planned to be built with the capacity to cater to five thousand residents. This apartment project soon became famous among the patients of Goldwater Hospital and the middle class of the population as they aspired to get their homes in the Island. People from all over New York signed to get their apartment booked in hopes of getting a property.

The biggest reason behind the popularity of this housing project was the reasonable prices of the apartments. The whole scheme to get the Welfare Island back on its feet started to work its magic, and the construction was planned. Soon after the construction started, twenty-five apartment buildings were successfully built and sold at affordable rates to the locals of New York. 

A lot of families started living there and saw some great times in their homes by the side of the shore for a long time. They felt satisfied with their investment and treated the island as their home. But just like other projects, this one was just as unlucky and was shut down only years after its initiation. 

In 2013, the Goldwater project was officially closed, and the buildings were demolished. And just as that, Roosevelt Island got deserted once again. Until now, there are no current plans by the government to start any project on this island again.  

Roosevelt Island Today

Despite having a dark history, Roosevelt Island is seeing preservation efforts today to maintain its historic landmarks for future generations. For instance, the iconic octagonal tower where Nellie Bly, an American journalist, lived for ten days, was restored in 2006. This restored building now houses upscale apartments. Moreover, the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was opened to the public in 2012.

This presidential memorial is a tribute to the President Roosevelt’s four essential human freedoms Roosevelt articulated in a 1941 speech, which are:

  1. Freedom of expression
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear

The park also portrays the island’s historical transformation from a place that once used to be home to confined inmates, sick patients, and destitute indigents to a lovely little community of families and homeowners.

The Bottom Line

The legends tell the story of this haunted land even now. No one knows when this place will get a debut again. We cannot tell when this place will see the real hustle and bustle, but one thing is certain that it is either severely cursed or just unlucky. The point of discussion here is not merely when something new will happen to this island, but why doesn’t anything last here?

We cannot say anything for sure, but maybe it is just that the government’s officials cannot look over the place more often. Or just the fact that the state does not want to be bothered by the loneliness of this island that we once used to call “The Welfare Island”. 

That being said, Roosevelt Island is a peaceful place now, which is also considered one of the best places to live in New York City (link with Top 10 residential buildings in New York City) if the residents want a dense urban feel. Today, you can find several coffee shops, restaurants, and parks there to entertain you. 

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