Living on Roosevelt Island: Things to Do and See on Roosevelt Island, New York City

Roosevelt Island—Urban Village with a Colorful Past and Skyline Views

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Where Is Roosevelt Island located in NYC?

Roosevelt Island is in the East River between Manhattan and Queens. The island is part of the borough of Manhattan.

  • North to South Boundaries: 85th Street along the Manhattan shoreline to 46th Street
  • Subway: F
  • Ticket out of the City: Roosevelt Island Bridge to 36th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard in Queens to Interstate Highways 495 or 278. The Roosevelt Island Tramway runs from Tramway Plaza to 59th Street and Second Avenue in Manhattan every 7 to 15 minutes.

This 147-acre, narrow landmass in the middle of the East River is an urban village with some 14,000 residents, a school, and several parks and green spaces with breathtaking views of New York City. Roosevelt Island has a fascinating history: Formerly Blackwell Island, owned by the Blackwell family from 1686 to 1882, it was purchased in 1828 for $32,000 by the City of New York, which renamed it in 1973 in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The most notorious symbol of Roosevelt Island was the Octagon tower, the site of the former New York City Mental Health Hospital; it was chronicled by Charles Dickens in the 19th century. Designated a national historic landmark, the Octagon is today a luxury, eco-friendly residential building. The island feels like a world away, yet is just a stone’s throw from Midtown Manhattan. This car-free enclave offers peace and quiet with recreational opportunities aplenty, community gardens, scenic promenades and walkways.

What to Do on Roosevelt Island

This 147-acre narrow landmass in the middle of the East River is an urban village with several parks that offer a front-row view of the New York City skyline. The Roosevelt Island Greenway is a paved, 3.8-mile loop around the perimeter of the island, flanked by Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park to the south and Lighthouse Park to the north. Its spectacular skyline views make it a popular destination for runners and cyclists. Charcoal grills are located at Lighthouse Park and by the West Seawall near the Octagon building. The seven-acre Southpoint Park is another popular space for picnics and barbecues. Further recreation options on the island include playgrounds, basketball courts, baseball and soccer fields, an indoor pool, and a gymnasium. During the summer, Roosevelt Island hosts outdoor festivals and open-air film screenings; in the fall, there’s the annual Halloween parade; and, springtime brings a Cherry Blossom Festival that includes traditional and modern Japanese performances and a cultural fair.

As small as this island is, it has many highlights: The southern tip is dedicated to Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms State Park, a memorial to the 32nd President of the United States. The four-acre, triangular-shaped site (designed by the great 20th-century architect Louis I. Kahn) points to a bronze bust of Roosevelt. The park offers breathtaking panorama of the East River and the Manhattan skyline. Roosevelt Island also has a Gothic Revival lighthouse. The 50-foot-high structure, now a historic landmark, was built in the 19th century by the island’s prison inmates. A memorial honoring journalist Nellie Bly is scheduled to open at the tip of Lighthouse Park in late 2020. The Roosevelt Island Historical Society runs a small visitors’ center from a former streetcar north of the tram terminal.

What to See on Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island is developing rapidly, yet it has a character all its own, evidenced by its famous historic landmarks. The Smallpox Memorial Hospital was built on the southernmost point of the island in 1854. The architect of the Gothic Revival structure was James Renwick, Jr., whose works include St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The hospital was abandoned in the 1950s; the crumbling ivy-covered Gothic Revival structure, the “Renwick Ruin,” is New York's only official ruin and remains a popular, albeit eerie, site—especially after dark, when it is illuminated. The Blackwell House, built in 1796 as a farmhouse, is one of the oldest houses in New York City. It served as living quarters for the wardens of the penitentiary and hospitals. East of the Roosevelt Island Smallpox Hospital Ruins is a circa-1882 Romanesque revival structure, formerly the Strecker Memorial Laboratory, the first laboratory in the United States dedicated solely to pathological and bacteriological research.

The Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association is an arts center that showcases artwork by local residents in collaboration with international guest artists; it also hosts frequent jazz performances. The group shows feature painters, sculptors, computer artists, graphic designers, ceramists, and installation artists, which are updated every two months. Roosevelt Island is also home to Main Street Theatre and Dance, which stages performances for all ages and offers beginning acting and dancing classes for children and adults, group workouts and belly-dancing classes. Roosevelt Island is a frequent backdrop for movies, including more than 20 Hollywood productions, including Nighthawks, starring Sylvester Stallone, City Slickers, and Spiderman, which featured the ruins of old smallpox hospital and the tram.

The island’s real estate inventory is tight: Home to young professionals, families, retirees, expats, and diplomats from the United Nations, the residential architecture of Roosevelt Island is a mix of modernist mid-rises and luxury high-rises, such as Manhattan Park and The Octagon. The eco-friendly luxury apartment complex in 2006 was built on the site of the original Octagon, the 19th-century psychiatric hospital made infamous by Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly. The LEED-certified building has the largest array of solar panels on any structure in New York City.

The full-service condominium Riverwalk Landing at 425 Main Street is another luxury building. Each apartment has oversized windows to take in the awe-inspiring views of the Manhattan skyline, the Queensboro Bridge, and the East River. Residents enjoy luxury amenities, including 24/7 concierge, a gym, children’s playroom, bike room, and numerous outdoor spaces, such as a lawn, patio, lounge, and spectacular rooftop terrace with barbecue grilling stations.

Where to Eat on Roosevelt Island

Roosevelt Island doesn’t have the restaurant or bar scene of Manhattan, but there are a few popular spots. One is Nisi, a local favorite since 2017, thanks to its enormous menu of classic Amer ican fare. Other popular eateries include Picollo Trattoria, Liukoushui Hot Pot Noodle (for all things ramen), and the Fuji East Japanese Bistro. More restaurants are set to open along Main Street. The Riverwalk Landing building will soon be home to Granny Annie’s Bar + Kitchen. A speakeasy-style bar, bistro, and beer garden, by the Hudson Yards development company, Hudson/Related, is also rumored to open in 2020 at the former Dayspring Church. The restaurants of East Midtown and the Upper East Side are just a scenic five-minute tram-ride away.

What Schools are in Roosevelt Island

Cornell Tech, “the first campus ever built for the Digital Age,” opened its doors in 2017. The 12-acre site is the technology, business, law, and design campus of Cornell University, in collaboration with the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. The campus also aims to bolster York’s tech industry with the addition of the Verizon Executive Education Center and Graduate Roosevelt Island Hotel (set to open in summer 2020), a world-class venue for academic conferences, executive programs, workshops and seminars, and will offer lodging for graduates and visiting academics.

There is one grade school on the island: the highly rated Roosevelt Island School, serving 643 Pre-K through 8th-grade students. There are several public and private high schools nearby, including the top-ranking Eleanor Roosevelt public high school on 76th Street on the Upper East Side.

How Many People Living on Roosevelt Island?

The population of Roosevelt Island is approximately 14,000.

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