Governors Island birthday

My birthday fell on a Saturday this year and it was likely to be a beautiful day, so why not try to get people to come out and celebrate it with me? Since it was my day I’d get to pick the activity, and what would I rather do than take my friends on an infrastructure excursion? I looked at my long list of future excursions, thought, and decided on Governors Island.

My cousin told me about this place late last summer, but it was only open seasonally so I’d missed my chance to go that year. “You’d love it,” she said then. In preparation for this trip I read up on how to get there, concocted a plan, and emailed a dozen of my closest New York area friends.

About half RSVPed yes (not too shabby for a holiday weekend), and boyfriend and I set out the sunny Saturday of my birthday to meet up with them on the island. This would be easier, since they’d be coming from all over the five boroughs. He and I took a couple of different subway trains from our house down to the lower tip of Manhattan where the ferry terminal was. As we rode I felt the pressure of trying to coordinate the friends at a remote location, and although we’d left on time and weren’t running behind, I felt a bit frantic. We exited the train and I consulted my phone’s GPS for the exact location of the ferry terminal.

It was closer than I’d thought – the grand building sat right next to the fairly newly rebuilt Whitehall Staten Island ferry terminal. Boyfriend, a Staten Island native, was quite familiar with that ferry and terminal, and I’d been there on occasion too. Neither of us had previously paid much attention to the beautiful building next door, however.

Governors Island Ferry terminal in Manhattan

Signs on Governors Island Ferry terminal

As we walked the quick block or so to the terminal, the sun shone down on us. The day wasn’t supposed to be too hot or humid, but we felt a hint of summer warmth. Approaching, we saw a line stretching out of the ferry building. After a moment of confusion we discerned this was the bike line and walked past it to our separate pedestrian line through a set of double doors. Once inside, we were disappointed to see a long line weaving back and forth through ropes. I worried that the friends would already be on the island. They’d beat us by a mile at this rate!

I tried not to panic. In the line, overly excited children bumped into us. A man weighted down with cameras and lenses checked his smartphone impatiently. Tourists chatted loudly. To my relief, texts from friends confirmed they were not yet on the island either, experiencing similar lines at the Brooklyn ferry terminal. Still anxious to board a ferry, we waited. I had looked up the schedule online, but the timing of the line advancing didn’t much seem to correspond to what I’d read, and I couldn’t figure out to tell people which time of boat we’d be on.

The line in the terminal

I thought we had finally made it when they opened the waiting room doors from our sort of holding pen on the side of the waiting room we were in. Everyone rushed out just to wait in one more line. For this one, we were semi-outdoors, though sheltered. We could see where the boat would dock so I kept peering around the mostly-taller-than-me crowd to try to catch the first glimpse of the ferry.

Boarding ramp

Finally I spotted something – our ferry approaching! I was excited, I knew it wouldn’t be long now. We watched the other people deboard and a portion of the bike line move up into position across the platform from us.

Ferry arriving at Manhattan terminal

Ready to board the ferry

I was thrilled when it was time to board and rushed up onto the boat. I knew I wanted us to be outside for the views. We grabbed a couple of seats on the deck and waited for the others to file on. I looked all around, taking in the sights in every direction.

The boat sat inside one of three ornate arches. These looked recently restored. The decorations were painted clay pot red, olive, and hunter green. I stared up at these beautiful structures and glanced back towards the terminal we’d just spent so much time in.

Elaborate arches in the ferry terminal

Ornate ferry terminal

People on the boat and the terminal

To the southwest we could now see the water side of the Staten Island ferry terminal next to us. One of the familiar big, orange boats sat here waiting for its passengers.

Staten Island Ferry from the Governors Island ferry in the terminal

Right across the water from us I recognized the scenic Brooklyn Heights Promenade, destination of a previous excursion. The shelf of a park above layers of highway were so distinctive, even at this distance.

Brooklyn Heights and the Promenade from the ferry in the terminal

Northeast of us were the three glorious bridges between Brooklyn and Manhattan. From closest to farthest from us they were the Brooklyn, Manhattan, then Williamsburg, the latter nearly obscured by the others.

Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges from the ferry in the terminal

To our north, I saw a stretch of FDR Drive that I am rarely – my travels don’t usually take me to lower Manhattan and certainly not in the car.

FDR Drive from the ferry in the terminal

As I took in this panorama, other ferry riders began to point and take pictures of something. I turned quickly and there were two military helicopters overhead. Nothing to worry about, it was related to New York’s Fleet Week which happens around Memorial Day each year. It was a little thrilling and a little scary to see these loud beasts fly and land  at the helipad so close to us. They made a few passes back and forth as we sat there in the berth.

Military helicopters over the Brooklyn Bridge

Military helicopter over Brooklyn

With a grinding start, our ferry began to move. We pulled out, then rotated in order to go forward towards Governors Island.

Looking back at the Manhattan terminal

Staten Island and Governors Island ferry terminals

Now we were on the more southwest side of the boat. We could see the Statue of Liberty, and further in the distance the Bayonne Bridge stretching between New Jersey and Staten Island.

Lady Liberty from the ferry

I watched the changing scenery as we traveled across the water. Manhattan’s tall buildings and ferry terminals seemed to shrink away into miniatures as we departed, while lush greenery and lower, older looking buildings came into focus in front of us on Governors Island.

Manhattan and ferry terminals

New Jersey and Manhattan waterfronts

Looking back at Manhattan and the Staten Island ferry

Governors Island comes into view

Getting closer to Governors Island

There was no shortage of sights to our right and left either. The three bridges still semi-paralleled us on the left.

Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges from the ferry

On our right, Ellis Island’s distinctive main building was visible. Another Governors Island ferry returning to Manhattan passed us about halfway.

Ellis Island from the ferry

Another Governors Island ferry, headed back to Manhattan

Behind us, the Staten Island ferry, our neighbor from the terminal, begun her journey from Manhattan to St. George, Staten Island.

Staten Island Ferry pulls out

I could tell we were close and got even more excited. My view into Governors Island was a bit obscured by the boat’s pilot tower and the dock’s gantries so I was even more anxious to see what lay ahead.

Governors Island and Statue of Liberty

Governors Island ferry terminal

Along with the rest of the crowd we spilled out onto the island as soon as we could, walking up a slight incline.

Governors Island ferry terminal from the island

Our first order of business was to get organized, oriented, and figure out the status of the other friends. I bought a map for $1 at a stand and texted the friends in the shade of a tree.

Boyfriend and I wandered a little bit, still not sure of the island’s geography, as I waited for texts back. We stayed close to the water and I started to try to wrap my head around the concept of this island. Already I saw a combination of nature, beautiful urban views, and buildings from various eras with various purposes.

Geese and goslings

Manhattan, bridges, Brooklyn

Brooklyn piers

An abandoned shed

It turned out a few friends were on this next ferry coming in from Brooklyn.

Bridges and Brooklyn ferry

Boyfriend and I made our way close to this ferry terminal, stood in the shade, and searched for the friends’ faces as the crowd left the incoming Brooklyn ferry. We located the three of them easily, we exchanged hugs, and I received birthday wishes. Soon there came a text from the final friend who was to join us that day. She was coming in from Manhattan and would meet us at our spot under the tree.

Finding her was also easier than I thought it might be. Still unsure of where, exactly, we were going, the six of us set off on a sort of southerly path.

We walked alongside shipping containers and cranes across the water in Brooklyn. On our other side was a long, brick building. It was hard to tell, and I felt the same way about this and most of the other buildings we encountered that day, what it was being used for (if anything) or if it was simply abandoned.

Friend and Brooklyn piers

Big building

At some point we turned away from the coast into the island in search of water and a restroom. We walked through a passage underneath the long building and happened upon a pretty chapel named St. Cornelius. We didn’t see a way in, but we were able to peek in through a cracked door. It seemed as if they were setting up for or cleaning up from an event. I thought how strange it would be to have a wedding or other formal ceremony on this odd island.

Passage through a building

St. Cornelius Chapel

Setting up for an event in St. Cornelius Chapel

Thirsty, we moved on. We came to a place with refreshments and facilities. Some of us stood under a group of trees waiting for the others to come back and planning where we might head next. I took in the sights: in front of us, a huge field called the Parade Ground with an appropriately largely scaled Marc di Suvero sculpture right in its center. Closer to us there were safety nets set up underneath trapezes. I thought I’d read that there was circus training on the island. Although a few people approached the staffer at the table near the nets we didn’t get to see anyone high flying as we stood there. All around, children played and families picnicked.

Mark di Suvero sculpture on the big lawn

I debated running across the broad field towards the sculpture, but decided there were more interesting pathways to take. I did have the vague goal that I wanted to walk around the whole island. The others agreed to that so we proceeded south-ish again.

We soon started to come to closed-off areas. Much of the southern end of the island is full of architectural remains from its days as a Coast Guard base and, unfortunately, is closed to the public. One of the first abandoned sights we saw here was a swimming pool. Its murky few feet of water looked to be now only used by ducks. On the baby blue painted chain link fence sat a strange collection of trinkets – googly eyes from the craft store and a tiny, plastic “barbed wire” fence. Who had glued these items together up here, when, and why, I wondered? I probably spent too much time musing over this and the swimming pool, and felt the friends wanting to move along so that we did.

Abandoned swimming pool

Strange collection of things on the swimming pool fence

We were now at a dead end and therefore forced to move back out to the road along the perimeter of the island. It looked like some of the buildings and grounds behind the tall chain link fence were used sometimes – maybe for special events or park staff and maintenance.

To our left, a massive, concrete pier jutted out onto the water. Friends reached it before I, but it looked appealing to explore so I followed them out onto it. The wind ripped at us out here, and there was even a tiny, passing sprinkle from the puffy clouds above.

Reading Yankee Pier sign

On Yankee Pier

The sights on and from the pier were worth the long walk out onto it.

Just the northeastern fork of it was open to the public, though the southwestern fork looked like it would fun to play on, with its old phone booth and industrial cast-offs strewn about.

Abandoned phone booth on Yankee Pier

Also to the south, beyond this closed fork, the Verrazano Bridge which connects Brooklyn and Staten Island was visible.

View south from Yankee Pier

I continued onto the pier’s north fork which brought me closer to the Brooklyn shipping district structures we’d been walking across from all along. From the other side of the pier we got to look back at Governors Island itself without leaving its shore.

A Brooklyn Pier from Yankee Pier

Looking across at Governors Island buildings

While the friends and I scattered and wandered on the pier, we met back up for the most part back on the main path. Though the views of the waterway were pretty here, I mostly concentrated on seeing what I could of the abandoned civilization through the chain link fence on our right.

Indeed, it looked like a pretty complete little town. There were what looked like condos close by and a big apartment building further away.

Abandoned condos

Rubble and an abandoned apartment building

A rather strange looking abandoned strip mall still had signs for the businesses: “Gourmet Annex,” “Hair Care Center,” “Dry Cleaners,” and more.

Abandoned strip mall

Further still there was a building with garage doors labeled “FDNY” (Fire Department of New York, presumably). A strange structure stood next to it, closer to the road.  Spray painted on this box was “Decommissioned 4-28-08”. I wondered what it contained.

Abandoned fire department

Some sort of decommissioned structure

At this point I was feeling the beginnings of fatigue. I wanted to press on, of course, but the walking had already taken a toll. While I tried to devote energies to talking with the friends, I must admit I was most focused on seeing the sights, absorbing this place and taking my pictures. One friend had wandered off ahead of us, maybe to discover hammocks or escape awkwardness. I wondered if he was doing okay and vocalized that a few times to the rest of the group.

We now began to round the southern tip of the island. The asphalt here was wider than a two lane road and followed the curve of the island’s ice-cream-cone-shaped southern tip. In places, caution tape or cones marked off sinkholes, potholes, or other imperfections. The views here of the Verrazano Bridge, the open water, and the Statue of Liberty were beautiful.

Verrazano Bridge

View from the path

Statue of Liberty

That beauty was acknowledged by the park’s furnishings: Wooden benches with wheels on one end and handles on the other like wheelbarrows dotted the path near the railing. Cute signs warned not to move the benches while people sat on them.

Rolling bench warning sign

On the grass, red lawn chairs, picnic tables, and hammocks were set up. On this busy day they were mostly occupied already. We gathered around one shady chair a friend found, careful to avoid goose poop in the grass.

More di Suvero sculptures stood out bold against this relaxing grassy landscape. Children climbed the statues wherever and whenever they could. Behind us we could see was a small farm, and back the way we came was a cute ice cream cart.

Marc di Suvero sculptures at Picnic Point

Children climbing a di Suvero sculpture

Underneath a di Suvero sculpture

While resting by the chair I spotted the friend who had gone on ahead earlier. Childlike, I ran across the grass towards him, so happy to reunite. We all sat for another few minutes then moved on, turning north to continue our circumnavigation of the island.

The road/path seemed more barren now, perhaps because the trees were set further back from it here.

New Jersey and Manhattan from the path

We passed a few contradictory structures that looked like bus shelters, announced “Not a tram stop,” and were plastered with computer renderings of a new, architecturally complex southern tip of the island. I wasn’t sure what to make of these. I figured they used to be bus stops for island residents. Now that the park runs only a simple tram shuttle between two stops the sign must have been posted to avoid confusion. While I am interested in the evolution of spaces over time, I found myself angry that they’d want to install some sort of conceptual, futuristic structure here. I’d much rather see the island with less intervention – either staying quasi-abandoned or maybe preserved/renovated staying true to or at least paying homage to its original plan.

“Not a tram stop” with illustration of proposed new Picnic Point

First to our right was a matrix of swingsets getting heavy use this sunny day. Then we passed more of the fenced-off, abandoned property we’d seen on the other side, including the big apartment building I’d seen peeking up over the other structures and greenery.

Useless bench outside abandoned apartment building

Big, abandoned apartment building

On the road, multi-rider bicycles passed by us. At sea, a big cruise ship passed by us, bound for an exotic destination. I wished I could wave at the vacationers but they were too far away.

Cruise ship passes by

I found myself still drawn to the abandoned sights behind the fence. Now there was a playground, an overgrown street, and whose boat was that? How I wished I could go in and see what everything looked like.

Abandoned playground

Abandoned road

Boat behind the fence

As soon as we could, we cut into the island again. It was time for a bathroom break and to apply more sunscreen. I milled around outside a shed and tried to use my camera flash to see what was inside, but to no avail. A policeman on a motorcycle made his rounds, reinforcing that my desire to somehow get in those abandoned buildings was far too risky to ever be fulfilled.


When we were all ready it was back out to the main path. The next landmark was a very old, round, structure sitting in the northwest corner of the island. This was Castle Williams, according to my map.

Castle Williams

Castle Williams

I couldn’t tell from this side whether the castle was accessible, but I knew I wanted to interact with it. I hopped up into one of the windows set deep into the thick stone wall. The building breathed chilly and damp on me. I knew this feeling and smell well from other abandoned buildings. On this warm day it felt like welcome air conditioning, a little corner of relief from the sun. Soon, the other two girls in our group hopped up inside to see what it was like too. We didn’t linger too long so that the boys wouldn’t get restless, and started to round that northwest corner of the island.

We passed a strange structure – a piece of metal curved towards us shielding a strange, anthropomorphic device. Reminding me of the robot character Wall-E, it was made up of two lenses or sensors or something with a shield over them, all stuck on top of a pole. Perhaps this funny thing had some military application – radar or weather or something?

I don’t know but it reminds me of Wall-E

From this spot we could also see the entire width of lower Manhattan – beautiful!

Lower Manhattan

I scurried around the other side of Castle Williams just to make sure it wasn’t accessible while the other friends pressed on. The castle was locked closed, though I’d heard it would be opening to the public at some point. I jogged to catch up with the group.

Entrance to Castle Williams

At this point, two friends departed, having made last-minute plans to go out of town. I said sad goodbyes, but was so glad they had joined us for the day!

Tired and thirsty, the rest of us proceeded to Water Taxi Beach where food and drink were available. On our way we passed a “potable water” tank and I remembered how my cousin said there was no running water here.

Potable water tank

Water Taxi Beach was a disappointing ordeal. Long lines and overcrowding made the stop not relaxing. And the “beach” was merely a manmade sandbox with no connection to the water at all! How strange. I munched watermelon and sipped my drink.

We took a moment to think about our schedule too. I’d planned birthday dinner, for which two other friends would meet us, at seven in Manhattan. Would we have time to see anything else on the island? I pulled out my map and prioritized. Though it was backtracking, I wanted to see the sculpture garden. We’d mostly looked at abandoned things and taken advantage of park facilities so far, but there was a whole other artistic and historical side to this place that we’d barely seen.

We took a kind of roundabout way (the interior streets and paths are not laid out in a very intuitive manner), did some team navigation (there might have been some whining involved on my part), and finally found a building’s archway through which to enter Liggett Terrace and the sculpture garden.

Archway leading into Liggett Terrace

Old gym sign

The art started in this passageway, with a sort of sound installation hung high on the wall.

Sound sculpture

I was too exhausted at this point to thoroughly study this or any of the artworks, so we just took a spin around the perimeter of the garden. From this surface-level visit, some of the pieces seemed interesting and well thought out in terms of their relationship to this unique island. Others were tacky, not well conceived, or weren’t holding up well in this very public space. Many had signs warning not to touch, something that’s difficult to enforce with public (especially outdoor) art.

Pole with zip ties art

Shipping container office spaces

Mini-golf course (part of the sculpture exhibit)

Weird sculpture

I could sense the group was as tired as I was and time was running short, so we stumbled out of the courtyard the way we came. On the way back to the ferry terminal, perhaps we could pass by Fort Jay, I suggested? This big, four-pointed-star-shaped building had been in front of boyfriend and I as we got off the ferry, but we hadn’t gotten close to it. We passed more rows of brick buildings and headed towards the fort and ferry.

Row of buildings

There was a grassy incline to get to the fort. When we got close, I saw one of the strangest sights I’d seen all day: It was what looked like an entrance/exit to Fort Jay, but incomplete. Stairs came down out of the fort, then bricks and wood scaffolding supported the walkway across the trough that surrounded the fort. But, strangely, the walkway dead ended before it connected with the grassy hill we stood on. Was this a recent security precaution to keep park visitors from using this path? Did it used to be for defense – maybe there was another piece that made this into a drawbridge? It was a mystery, but I stood there on the hill and tried to figure it out.

Dead-end walkway from Fort Jay

Dead-end walkway

The most interesting way to get to the ferry seemed to be to go through this trough. There were several places to get down into it through symmetrical staircases up against its outer wall. This, too, seemed strange in the context of this structure as a working fort, but my tired brain and body didn’t question it much since it made for a convenient path.

Steps down into the trough around Fort Jay

We walked in a semicircle around the fort. At one point there was a set of pretty, arched, doors in the interior side wall. I went over to check it out and wanted to go in, but it was locked. We continued around then up and out of the trough on the ferry side.

Locked doors into Fort Jay

Flag over Fort Jay

We scurried to get on the ferry already waiting at the dock, though we probably didn’t have to. I wedged myself into a decent spot on the top deck, while hot and tired friends sat (or laid) on benches inside the boat for the duration.

Back to the ferry terminal

Leaving Governors Island

From my perch I got a good view of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel ventilation shaft – a monumental, hexagonal structure sticking out from a Governors Island pier. Ventilation shafts, these integral components of tunnel infrastructure disguised as funny looking buildings, have always been interesting to me since I knew of their existence.

Brooklyn Battery Tunnel ventilation shaft

And so we began our trip back across the water. The journey seemed even quicker this time, but likely it was just my different mood this evening after a long day.

Approaching the Manhattan ferry terminal

Back to the ornate arches

Arch in the ferry terminal

When we docked the riders on the lower deck poured back into the ferry building. I climbed down the stairs, off the boat, and waited for the friends off to the side near the ferry personell. I waved as they came down the stairs.

Deboarding the ferry in Manhattan

Boyfriend and I texted the others who were to meet up and our timing seemed about right. We walked back past the Staten Island ferry terminal and got on the train the two of us had ridden earlier that afternoon.

Staten Island ferry terminal from land

As we rode my brain tried to synthesize my experience at Governors Island. It was so much to do and take in, definitely more than could be accomplished in a single day. I’d have to go back sometime. My brain boggled at how this one island was all at once a fledgeling park, historic monument, abandoned space, sculpture garden, public art installation, recreational destination, and more. Some of my excursion places are two of these things, but never all of them! It was quite a unique place to be sure.

To wrap up the story of the day, we were successful at meeting up with the other two at the restaurant in SoHo, which had plenty of space though I intentionally hadn’t made a reservation. Those of us who had been out in the sun and walking all day started to feel less like zombies after we started to chow down. But the most amazing time was still to come after we finished our food:

Two of my best friends in the entire world (and attendees that day) had organized a massive gift for me and solicited collaboration from twenty four other friends and family. The gift was money for a brand new digital SLR camera that I would get to pick out. The entire story is online here, and the thank you and results of my purchase are here, for those who care to read. This gift, thanks to my wonderful friends and family, was the icing on the cake of a perfect day; a day that I will always remember as one of the very best in my entire life.

See a map the Governors Island birthday excursion [Note: map is approximate and is based on my recollection of our walking pattern!]

Facebook friends only: You can see “people” pictures from that day.

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