New York’s Other Islands boat tour

I love Open House New York for their weekend, but also for their programs all year long. When I saw in their email newsletter that they’d be doing a boat tour of “New York’s Other Islands” I thought it’d be perfect. I checked my calendar, confirmed I was free, and bought a ticket right away.

When the day of the tour arrived, I was less excited. I’d been sick the couple of days before, and summer colds are the worst. I even thought about going home to sleep after work instead of going on the boat. But by the mid-afternoon I gathered my strength and got ready to leave work early and head down to South Street Seaport’s pier 16.

I’d heard on the radio that morning that President Obama would be in town in the evening. Knowing the traffic nightmare that presidential visits cause further reinforced my decision to park the car near a subway stop and take public transportation. In fact, the OHNY coordinator even sent an email warning attendees to leave extra time to get there because of the visit!

My ride down was smooth. The President wasn’t in town yet. I’d left plenty of time to get there. I got off the train near the future Fulton Street Transit Center, a much self-publicized MTA Capital Construction project. The center, across the street from where I came up the stairs, had begun to take shape.

Future Fulton Street Transit Center

I walked east on Fulton Street. Definitely starting to get excited, but still feeling a little cloudy-headed from my cold, I decided to refuel at my go-to coffee chain. I basked in the luxury of having had a drama-free commute down and therefore being able to take my time; something that didn’t always happen on excursions. I sort of wandered on Fulton street after fetching my caffeine – I realized that this is the place I was just a few weeks earlier for the Cliff Street Substation tour.

Cliff Street Substation

Back of the Cliff Street substation

My path was unclear and my head felt disorganized. At first I made a beeline right for the meeting place near the boat, but then I realized wanted to capture the substation and some other sights I’d seen as I walked down Fulton Street. Then remembering I should buy a bottle of water to try to take care of my sick self (and thinking it’d probably be much more expensive on the boat) I backtracked again. I always wonder what people think as they look at me walking back and forth or stopping dead in my tracks to turn around. Today my missions were too important to really worry, but it occurred to me anyway. I must have looked like a lost tourist with my big camera and nonlinear walking pattern.

Looking back on Fulton Street

As I got within a block of South Street Seaport, I realized that Fulton Street slopes down towards the water here. I was thrilled to see FDR Drive suspended in the air almost directly in front of me. Though I’d been down here before, I never quite paid attention to the interaction of this infrastructure as much as I did now.

Looking towards South Street Seaport

As I walked through that closed block of Fulton Street that begins the South Street Seaport area, I thought of the times I’d been here before: with an out-of-town friend to see the Bodies exhibit, for fireworks a few times several years ago, and maybe once taking my family to shop. Maybe because it was less crowded than I’d seen it sometimes, or maybe because of my calm state of mind, I didn’t have a sense of this block as such a congested, annoying, touristy district like I had sometimes before.

South Street Seaport

South Street Seaport

Buildings loom over South Street Seaport

I soon approached the end of the pedestrian block. The shelf of FDR Drive was nearly over my head. I’d definitely been under this road before, but when it was closed to vehicles during fireworks, and when rushing to finish The Great Saunter (circumnavigating Manhattan by foot with my friend – blog entry coming soon?) The experience this day was quite different. Because of my early arrival I could stay and enjoy my proximity to this mighty highway with its traffic speeding by.

FDR Drive over South Street Seaport

After crossing the street under the highway, I didn’t stop wondering at the elevated drive. It seemed so unnatural for the cars (and buses) to be so high above me. At the same time they seemed so close to me. I spent a little time watching them above me and looking at the strong horizontal that the road cut against the verticals of the downtown skyscrapers.

Buildings over FDR Drive

Tall ship, FDR Drive, buildings

It was just now the time I’d targeted for my arrival. I looked around and saw a few friendly-looking people with lists. Getting closer, I saw their OHNY pins and I knew I was in the right place. I checked in, visibly excited by this time. My boarding pass was a standard sticky address label with the organization’s logo and “boarding pass” printed on it. I stuck it to my tank top and decided to explore for a few more minutes before making my way to the end of the pier, where the staff said boarding was to take place.

Between the anticipation of being on this boat tour and the many sights around me, I felt rekindled in myself a sense of quiet, wonder, and internal excitement/nervousness that I hadn’t experienced on excursions in quite a while. My eyes grew wide. I cared only about being there; not how strange my staring, standing, or random walking patterns looked to anyone else. Prime were the goals of living the moment and capturing my experience as best as possible for later. I’m still not sure if this sense is reproducible on command or if it just stikes when excursions are especially right in some way. Sometimes I close my eyes and try to find it. One day I hope to find the answers in myself.

As I basked in these feelings, I recorded the sights around me on this pier full of leisure activity.

FDR Drive over shops

At South Street Seaport

The tall ships docked here are a sort of icon of the seaport. One day, I thought, I should find out if one can get a tour of them. Not a task for today though!

Between tall ships

Tall ship

Tall ship masts

I was again reminded of the times “we” went to fireworks here. It was back when the Macy’s Fourth of July fireworks show was on the East River, of course. How many years did I go to this same spot, just south of the tall ships? Three or even four? One year it rained and people took shelter under the FDR.

There were some strange sights along with the familiar. A wooden structure bearing the words “New York Central No. 31” sat plopped in the middle of the wooden pier. Though the signs in the windows indicated this kiosk was an office for a trapeze school, my train radar perked up at the words “New York Central“. Apparently this little structure is the wheelhouse or pilothouse from an old rail tugboat!

Rail tugboat pilothouse, now a kiosk

Rail tugboat pilothouse, now a kiosk

A giant, red, anatomically-correct heart sculpture nearby stood much taller than me and advertised the Bodies exhibit.

Heart sculpture/advertisement

There was some strange graffiti scrawled on a wooden storage bin near the boats. It said “After dolphin Taiwan we step forward”. Perhaps an obscure song lyric?

Weird graffiti: “After dolphin Taiwan we step forward”

Nestled away between the railing, a garbage dumpster, and a boat ramp was a man sitting cross-legged with his tablet device. I looked for a moment, hoping he wouldn’t notice. I felt solidarity with him – hiding away from the crowds in a cosy spot, sitting on the ground. If he hadn’t been there, I perhaps would have taken the spot myself. He may have noticed me, because some of the tranquility left his posture by the time I snapped my photo.

A man finds a secluded spot

I noticed more crowds gathering around those checking us in for the tour and thought I might head towards the place where we would board, though I still felt little hurry.

Visitors check in

I couldn’t see our exact boarding place from where I was since there was so much going on and many little structures on the pier, but figured I’d be able to pick it out if I walked out towards the water. I walked on pier 16 parallel with the big Pier 17 building, remembering this was a sort of mall but with very pretty views. It’d been a long time since I’d been inside.

Pier 17 building

Pier 17 building

Indeed, the boarding place was easy enough to find – there was already a line of people in a roped-off area. Maybe I should have hurried more so I could be first in line. Peering ahead, it appeared our boat wasn’t at the dock yet though, even though it was just a few minutes until we were supposed to depart.

I occupied myself in the line by reorganizing my bag, still sipping my iced coffee, writing my observations in my notebook, and craning my neck to see if I could see the President land at the heliport just south of us (no luck, though I could vaguely see some police car lights in that area). A man asked me if I was taking notes. “Yes,” I said. And sheepishly, “I blog.”

I fidgeted with excitement. Before too much longer, our boat pulled up. She was a big, three-decked, yacht-like vessel named Zephyr.

Our boat, the Zephyr

Her pervious guests soon poured out onto the pier past us. It looked like the masses included couple of tour groups: one of young people with matching red screenprinted t-shirts, and another of conservative Jewish (?) women and girls. The groups came out in waves, each huddling around a stand that probably displayed photos taken of them when boarding, and then moving on.

Zephyr’s previous guests look at their photos

Somehow I expected to board the second everyone from the previous group was off the boat, but this was too eager of me. At some point we were told to move up into a more consolidated waiting area closer to the boat. I scooted rapidly this time, knowing that I didn’t want to lose any ground and fall further back in line. We waited more. I looked up at the sights around me, including peering into the boat to try to strategize where I would sit. The man from before chatted with me about previous OHNY weekends. A few in the crowd buzzed about the Presidential visit.


Sun behind buildings

I began realizing that the tour was not going to be as intimate as I thought. There was a long line of people behind me. Could we all even fit on the boat? I kept my eye on the staff and the chain holding back our entrance to the boat so that I wouldn’t miss my chance. I definitely wanted to be on the top deck on this beautiful night.

Line to get on the boat

I knew we were getting close to boarding when a few folks with wheelchairs or canes were escorted on first. I looked at them with soft eyes, patient now. Finally the chain was undone and it we flooded onto the boat. Some chaos ensued when communication failed and a second chain got unlatched, causing a bit of a bottleneck. Though tempted to run, I power-walked to the back of the boat, up the first flight of stairs, then the second. I grabbed a seat on the end of a bench on the top deck and congratulated myself on my find.

Having claimed my seat, the stressful part was done so I began to look at the beauty all around me. To our south was Governors Island, always recognizable from its Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel ventilation shaft. To the east, one of my favorite pieces of stacked infrastructure: local roads at the grade of the Brooklyn Navy Yard underneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway westbound lanes underneath the BQE eastbound lanes underneath the beautiful Brooklyn Heights Promenade.

Governor’s Island on the right

Looking across to Brooklyn

Directly to our north was the iconic Brooklyn Bridge. Beyond that the Manhattan and then Willamsburg Bridges could also be seen. We would head up that way, I knew, when we got started.

Brooklyn and bridges

Brooklyn Bridge (Manhattan Bridge behind)

People were still boarding. The top deck was a popular destination.

People boarding

People started crowding in between the deck’s railing and its and the benches, standing. Some socialized and sipped their alcoholic beverages. I panicked. My view was blocked by socializers. Was it legit for these people to stand there? Would I also stand and wedge myself between them to get my views and photos? What would that solve for the sitting people around me? Dread about dealing with crowds of people and awkward situations set in, as well as the tired anger of the longtime New Yorker faced with the day-to-day nuisance of inconsiderate people. I felt my quiet wonder slip away.

Then I had an idea. I slipped onto the floor of the deck, a little bit forward of where my seat had been. I looked up sweetly at the ladies now next to me on the bench. They were also rolling their eyes over the standing view-blockers. I expressed sympathy and told them to tell me if I was ever in their way, as I might pop up once in a while to take a photo. We had a subtle allegiance against the rude, and I felt calmed again.

Someone from OHNY began to introduce the evening’s speakers and tour guides. The boat begin to slowly pull out from her dock.

Introducing our hosts

Before the pair got started, there was a helicopter spotted approaching over the Brooklyn Bridge. Eyes turned skyward. Was that the President? was the question on everyone’s mind. I overheard someone say that three identical helicopters always flew, two as decoys and one with the President in it. If that was true, which one was this? Cheers and waving spontaneously broke out as the helicopter passed directly over us. While I’m not generally a political creature, the spontaneous applause warmed my heart. Perhaps I’m accustomed to all the political mudslinging in the media and on my social networks. Perhaps there’s a correlation between supporters of nonprofits like OHNY and fans of our President. Perhaps people were just excited to “see” a celebrity. Whatever the reason, the positivity was surprising and encouraging. I looked at my bench-neighbors who were smiling too, and with that the tour was off to a bright start.

Helicopter over Brooklyn Bridge

Military helicopter

Military helicopter

Time slipped by smoothly as our hosts began to introduce themselves and the night’s topic. Before I even knew it we were cruising beneath the Brooklyn Bridge like the space we covered was nothing.

Brooklyn Bridge

About to pass under the Brooklyn Bridge

Under the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan Bridge beyond

The hosts were a couple. They’d researched New York’s “other islands” (and written a book about them) together. By “other,” they mean anything other than Manhattan, Long, and Staten Islands; the area’s best known and largest. For their project, they investigated 45 islands from little mounds of rocks, to manmade islands, to larger land masses, to islands-no-longer (like Coney). Many of the islands they researched had similar histories: used first as family settlements or military forts, they were transformed into places for society’s undesirables, then with the advent of more modern ideas about how to treat one’s fellow man (and woman) and the growing desirability of real estate in New York, many islands morphed again to serve residential, leisure, or utility purposes. In fact, the pair issued two subsequent editions of their book since so much about the islands had changed since the first publication. The general arc of island histories made a lot of sense to me based on what I’d previously read about islands like Roosevelt and Randall’s, but we’ll get there!

As I listened, I enjoyed the soaring lines of the East River bridges. We’d passed Brooklyn by this time and approached its more modern looking sister, the Manhattan bridge.

Looking back at Brooklyn

Manhattan Bridge

The bridges angle towards each other in Brooklyn, and end up touching down just a block apart on that side of the river. In the heart of this pizza-slice shape is Brooklyn Bridge Park, a prettily-landscaped green space.

Manhattan Bridge and Brooklyn

Brooklyn Bridge Park

Now I was more attentive and passing under the Manhattan Bridge didn’t catch me by such surprise like the trip under the Brooklyn did. I absorbed the view and captured many photos of our journey under. I know the bridges weren’t the focus of this boat excursion, but I had to enjoy them alongside listening to the information about the islands.

Manhattan Bridge behind one of our hosts

People listening by Manhattan Bridge

About to go under the Manhattan Bridge

About to go under the Manhattan Bridge

About to go under the Manhattan Bridge

Passed under the Manhattan Bridge

Manhattan Bridge

Leaving the Manhattan Bridge

I tried to identify as much of what was around me as I could. The bridges were easy, and some of the features on the shores too. But a few things I wasn’t sure about, like this power plant/power grid-looking complex on Brooklyn’s shore just north of the Manhattan Bridge. I hungered for knowledge, wishing I knew what everything was.

Industry in Brooklyn

As we pulled further from the sister bridges, I looked around me at the people too. I noticed I could see down to the second deck, where people leaned against the railing and looked out. One man on that deck enthusiastically shared facts about the sights with the people around him, a sort of secondary simultaneous tour. Throughout the ride I heard his commentary drift up to me on and off.

Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges

Crowd on the boat

Looking down to the second deck

After the power plant and some other buildings I couldn’t place, I was pretty sure the glass towers I saw were the southern end of Williamsburg. This was definitely a neighborhood known for its increasingly fancy and expensive real estate, mostly targeted towards young people, so it would make sense that these glass towers resided here.

Power plant? In Brooklyn

Industry in Brooklyn

Williamsburg apartments

My geographic sense was confirmed; we were coming up on the Williamsburg bridge. For some reason, this structure has always looked less graceful (though no less interesting and charming) than many of the other bridges. It reminds me of a great grey elephant standing big and clumsy in the river. No matter its grace or not, I still watched with wonder as we passed under the bridge’s belly.

Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge over our guides on the boat

Approaching the Williamsburg Bridge

About to go under the Williamsburg Bridge

Under the Williamsburg Bridge

Williamsburg Bridge behind us

On our right (on the Brooklyn side) someone pointed out the old Domino sugar factory. You can’t miss its huge sign and classic factory look, but not much more was said about it this evening.

Old Domino Sugar factory

As we headed out into the more open, bridge-less water between northern Brooklyn/southern Queens and Manhattan, I felt blissful in my little spot on the floor. It was comfortable enough, I had agreeable women on the bench to my left, and I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view. I shifted sitting positions often for comfort and to aim my camera. I’d hop up on my knees or feet to take pictures above the chain-link railing every so often, but then pop back down and go back to looking out through the diamond-shaped pattern in the fencing, a view that was much more satisfying than it sounds.

I could see everything from my spot: all of the exciting bridges and buildings, as well as more run-of-the-mill sights like a tugboat pushing a barge, and stranger sights like colored balloons floating in the water. It’s always a bit sad to see balloons without an owner, one can’t help but imagine a child’s fun floating away or a pretty party display losing its adornments.

Tugboat and barge ahead

Tugboat and barge

Balloons in the river

Somewhere around this time, the first in a series of etiquette announcements started. It sounded like someone had complained, because the OHNY staffer came on the PA system and told people standing around the edges of the top deck to sit down because other people couldn’t see over them. It was a socially awkward moment, and some standers found new positions reluctantly. I traded glances with the bench ladies again – looks of a small victory. One of them may have even quietly cheered.

By this time, the tip of Long Island City was visible to our right. I recognized the new, tall buildings and the transfer bridges marked “Long Island” from a friend’s night-before-the-wedding reception of several years ago. I mean to soon return to Gantry State Park where the old transfer bridges are, a lovely spot by the water in the shadow of this new construction.

New towers in Long Island CIty

Our guides began to talk specifically about our first island: U Thant Island. I craned my neck to try to see it, but the small piece of land was straight ahead of us and blocked by the boat’s bow. While I listened I watched the sights of Long Island city drift by. The giant Fresh Direct sign and lots of industry were juxtaposed with a small fleet of kayakers practicing off a grassy outcropping.

Industry in Long Island City

Kayakers off Long Island City

Finally, little U Thant was visible ahead. I pointed it out to the bench ladies, though they couldn’t see from their seats until a few minutes later.

U Thant and Roosevelt Islands

As we moved further north, I got an even better view of Gantry State Park and Long Island City. Little known fact: This park could actually be considered the first infrastructure excursion. I wandered here that night of friend’s pre-wedding party. It was the beginning of me being in a space for no other reason than wanting to experience and explore it, the first photos purely for the sake of wanting to capture a place, the first sense of timelessness, finding love for and deep curiosity about the manmade structures I interacted with. While I started this blog with my entry on the Spuyten Duyvil train station in September 2010, I could just as well have gone back and written about my night at Gantry State Park and it would have fit seamlessly.

Towers in Long Island City

Towers and Gantry State Park

We neared the island that we’d been listening to the history of for the last several minutes. U Thant, our guides said, is just a little mass of rocks. It was manmade from landfill dug up when William Steinway (of pianos and Astoria street name fame) began building trolley tunnels under the river from Manhattan to Queens. August Belmont Jr. (of IRT subway fame) finished the tunnels, which would then become part of today’s subway 7 line. Belmont named the pile of rocks that was this island for himself at the time.

In 1977 a group from the United Nations leased this little island from the city. They named it for U Thant, former Secretary General of the UN. A plaque bearing a quote, a “peace arch”, and later a time capsule were placed here. Today, the island still holds these items but mainly serves as a bird sanctuary.

U Thant in the foreground

Tiny U Thant Island

U Thant Island

U Thant Island

Passing U Thant Island

U Thant Island looking back towards Brooklyn

Goodbye, U Thant Island

Roosevelt Island served as a backdrop to many of the views of U Thant, so I knew this was next on our presenters’ list to talk about. I was excited. If you read this blog at all, you know I am a huge fan of Roosevelt Island – I even want to live there someday. I knew a lot about its history already, but was still eager to hear what our hosts had to say.

First, passing the island’s southern tip, we got great views of the FDR Four Freedoms Park under construction. I knew from some Roosevelt Island blogs that this design was controversial among islanders, but whether one agrees with it or not, it was still amazing to get this view of this place not yet open to visitors, with its striking, blocky, light granite shapes.

Four Freedoms park in progress

Four Freedoms park in progress

All of Four Freedoms park

Just to the north of the tribute to FDR is the Renwick Ruin, a former smallpox hospital designed by famed architect James Renwick, Jr. I believe the reopening of this ruin, now undergoing stabilization, will coincide with the opening of the park and I can’t wait to visit both.

Renwick Ruin under construction

As I looked at the mostly-familiar sights on my beloved Roosevelt Island, I listened to its history as told by our guides. First called Blackwell’s Island and home to the family by that name, it was later sold to the city and became home to the metropolis’s first jail. Soon other “undesirables” were added to the mix when a mental hospital was built here. Conditions at the hospital were dirty and inhumane, a fact exposed by journalist Nellie Bly when she went undercover, posing as a mental patient.

This exposé, from which our hosts read a passage, inspired reforms. The island was renamed to Welfare Island, the connotation at the time being concern for the well-being of other citizens rather than the negative meaning the word “welfare” has taken on today. New hospitals opened offering better conditions.

Between 1968 and 1973, New York City mayor John Lindsay studied the island’s use, architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee developed a plan for residential buildings, and  the island was given its modern name of Roosevelt. One of the reasons I’ve always been fascinated with this place is that so much of it was designed and built at one time, in the 1970s, unlike the rest of New York City. The careful design gives it a uniquely retro-modern feel, and one can hear the designers’ vision of a small utopian community speaking from the past through architectural and infrastructural forms that still exist today.

Passing next to Roosevelt Island, one cannot ignore the Queensboro Bridge, a monstrous, tan belt crossing the island as it stretches between Manhattan Island and Queens. This bridge has always been one of my favorites, perhaps partly because of its touch-down on my dear Roosevelt Island.

Queensboro Bridge

About to go under the Queensboro Bridge

Under the Queensboro Bridge

One of my other favorite parts about this island is its tram, which shuttles people back and forth right next to the Queensboro Bridge. I was lucky enough to spot a tram cabin going towards the island just after we passed under the bridge. I couldn’t help myself; I pointed and said “TRAM!” No one really looked, though personally I think it’s one of the neatest things to watch the tram go by overhead.

Tram cable support and Queensboro Bridge


Tram against Queensboro Bridge

I enjoyed the views of the modernist apartment buildings as we traveled alongside the bulk of the island north of the Queensboro Bridge.

Queensboro Bridge across Roosevelt Island

Buildings on Roosevelt Island

Building on Roosevelt Island

I was even lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the Roosevelt Island Bridge between buildings. This bridge connects the island to Queens and is the only way to reach it by auto.

Roosevelt Island Bridge between buildings

In the pre-blog days, I’d walked almost the entire length of this island, from the tram to the northern tip. Friends and I did this on a whim one a warm, perfect summer night many years ago. I recognized the prow of the boat that stuck out from the walkway by the water, as I’d stood in it then and a couple of times since. I still didn’t know the story behind it though.

Boat prow on Roosevelt island

Nearing the northern tip of the island, our guides pointed out the Octagon building sticking up over the trees. The part of this structure giving it its name was a component of the island’s original hospital. It had been restored and supplemented with wings that hold fancy apartments in recent years.

Roosevelt Island looking south

The Octagon building

The northernmost tip of the island soon came into view. The lighthouse marking it, our guides said, was also designed by James Renwick, Jr. I’d been here on foot too, but the lighthouse looked more beautiful than ever in the early dusk tonight.

Lighthouse at the northern tip

Roosevelt Island lighthouse

Past the island I could see more sights I loved: the Triboro and Hell Gate Bridges. So opposite in shape and the kind of traffic they carry – cars and pedestrians vs. Amtrak trains, respectively, I’ve always enjoyed this pair.

Triboro and Hell Gate Bridges

The next island discussed on our tour was Mill Rock. While larger than U Thant, this little guy doesn’t even get the benefit of “Island” in its name, simply “Rock.” Mill Rock is roughly parallel to Manhattan’s 96th Street, the guides said, and was formerly two separate islands. This might explain its strange shape. This place’s history was quite unique: at one time a vendor based here sold snacks to boaters passing by. Later chickens, cows, and a farmer lived here. Finally, the island served as home base to the army as they undertook a project to demolish with explosives a nine-acre underground rock that made the Hell Gate tidal strait near here an even more treacherous place for ships. Nowadays only birds inhabit the island and its dock is left abandoned.

Mill Rock

Southern tip of Mill Rock

Mill Rock

Abandoned dock on Mill Rock

Mill Rock and bridges

Looking back at Mill Rock

Just past Mill Rock, the views of the Triboro and Hell Gate Bridges were even more spectacular.

Triboro and Hell Gate Bridges

I don’t think I was alone in my confusion when the boat started to turn around just south of Randall’s Island. It was too early to go back, and plus I thought the tour description included islands we hadn’t yet reached! It turns out it was likely just a temporary misunderstanding, as we continued back northeast afterwards. I actually appreciated the little detour, as it gave me stunning views of the Ward’s Island (pedestrian) Bridge, East Harlem, a bit of the Upper East Side, and even another look at Roosevelt Island.

Bridges intersect Randall’s Island

Ward’s Island (pedestrian) Bridge

Ward’s Island (pedestrian) Bridge

East Harlem and Bridge

Upper East Side and Harlem

Roosevelt Island and Upper East Side

Northern tip of Roosevelt Island

As we turned back around to go on our way, our guides began to discuss Randall’s and Wards Islands, which were to our left now. The history of these two followed a similar paradigm as some of the other islands: Randall’s was formerly home to the John Montresor (and named for him at the time). Wards Island was, as you might expect, home to the Ward brothers. Later the islands were home to institutions, and in the 1930’s under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the land between the two islands was filled in as part of a plan to create recreational space.

Randall’s Island and Manhattan

I spaced out a little bit during this leg of the trip, finding myself concentrating more on studying my surroundings – the Triboro and Hell Gate bridges we were passing under as well as the coast of Queens. I took not-as-good notes during this time. Perhaps my focus wandered partly because those on the port side had much better views of Randall’s and Wards Islands which were being described.

Triboro Bridge

Apartments in Queens

About to go under the Triboro Bridge

Passed under the Triboro Bridge

Hell Gate Bridge over the boat

Hell Gate Bridge

About to pass under under Hell Gate Bridge

Passing under Hell Gate Bridge

Under Hell Gate Bridge

Though it wasn’t discussed much at the time, I spied the Manhattan Psychiatric Center over the heads of people on the boat. You can’t miss its very institutional architecture when passing over the Triboro Bridge between the Bronx and Queens (which touches down on Randall’s/Wards Island) so I’d seen it many times before and could pick it out even from the opposite side of the boat.

Manhattan Psychiatric Center in the distance

We left my two bridges and continued northeast through the channel between Wards Island and northwestern Queens, which appeared to be an industrial district.

Looking back at Hell Gate Bridge

Industry in northern Queens

Knowing that I had an interest in abandoned places, friends had recently sent me links to articles about North Brother Island, which included stunning photographs from its abandoned buildings. I was immediately intrigued and wished I could visit this off-limits island. I came close on this boat trip, as the next sight was this North Brother Island and its baby brother, South Brother Island. Things seemed to be coming in pairs this trip, and this attraction was no exception.

While South Brother Island is too small to have contributed much to history, North Brother Island has a rather grim past. Continuing with the theme of sequestering undesirables on islands, this one too was home to a smallpox hospital at one time.

South Brother Island

South and North Brother Islands

Barge and tugboat by Brother Islands

But North Brother is perhaps most well-known by being the Island that the General Slocum steamboat wrecked on in New York’s worst disaster (in terms of loss of life) up until 9/11. Our hosts told the grisly story which started off with a boat full of German immigrants, off to spend a day picnicking on a Long Island beach. An oil lamp on the boat caught fire and was fueled by flammable material and fanned by the captain’s choice to accelerate the ship. Faulty life jackets, life boats, and other safety equipment, as well as inexperienced and untrained crew led to the deaths of over a thousand people that day. The burning ship ran aground on North Brother Island, where hospital workers did as best as they could to help surviving passengers to safety.

The infamy of North Brother continued in the next decade, as Typhoid Mary was quarantined here for life after her second round of spreading typhoid fever to families she worked as a cook for. I knew this story before and it was so interesting to see before my eyes this place that such a character spent much of her life.

My eyes searched between the trees for glimpses of the abandoned buildings I saw in the article’s photos. I knew there were many more than I could see from the boat – the tree cover was thick from years without human intervention.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island

We rounded the island clockwise, and came quite close to an old dock, now home to a police boat (I’m not sure if police were truly on the island or if this was to scare off would-be trespassers). Here, there was a great view of what appeared to be the island’s old powerhouse, a brick building with smokestacks.

Abandoned building on North Brother Island

Abandoned North Brother Island

Abandoned North Brother Island

Abandoned North Brother Island

Abandoned North Brother Island

I clung on to the images of the couple of visible buildings by the coast as we turned east, still wishing I could explore all of the ruins on that island. So many more structures, I was sure, hid in the thick, dark foliage.

Coast of North Brother Island

North Brother Island

Passing North Brother Island

North Brother Island perspective

About then was the first time I realized it was getting dark outside. I wondered how much longer I’d be able to take good photos. Even if not conducive to photography, the evening light was beautiful. A hazy pink rose up in a band above the horizon, and the bright blue of afternoon turned to the gray-blue of dusk. I spotted the crescent moon high in the sky growing brighter and brighter.

South and North Brother Islands

South and North Brother Islands with skyline

Moon over North Brother Island

Our next stop, just southeast of where we’d been, was Riker’s Island. This, said our guides, was one of the hardest islands to get access to while doing research, as it houses the city’s jail. The buildings here, they said, were built piecemeal on an as-needed basis. The island first served as a work-house for prisoners, then an official jail. In the 1960s and 1970s, the jail suffered from overcrowding. Riots broke out and corrections officers were even held hostage by inmates in 1975. During the 1980s and 1990s the primary problems became gangs and the crack epidemic. Not that this ever sounded like a fun place to be, though I did have a morbid curiosity about it, but our guides made it sound even worse than I thought.

Riker’s Island

Corrections buses

Riker’s Island and skyline

Riker’s Island

While, again, bridges weren’t the focus of this trip I did remember that there was only one very narrow bridge providing access to Riker’s Island. I could see its slender shape not far above the water in front of us. I always thought it was a cruel joke that Riker’s sits so close to LaGuardia Airport, and in fact, its bridge almost leads right to the airport. Escape is so close, yet so far, for these prisoners!

Riker’s Island Bridge

Plane over Riker’s Island Bridge

We began to turn around and head back. I could just barely see in the distance the Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges. Talk about siblings – these bridges could almost be twins!

Dusky Whitestone and Throgs Neck Bridges

On the trip back, as we passed each of the islands we’d seen and heard about before, our guides added even more information about their more modern histories. It seemed almost rushed at times, they had so much to impart to us and knew the trip would draw to a close too soon.

Now facing west, I watched a bit of the Bronx coastline from my still-cosy floor spot. I took a few pictures of strange structures here in Hunts Point (well known for not being a good neighborhood). The first was some sort of abandoned-looking dock building. The second looked so strange, and I happened to stumble upon what it was in my research afterwards. It’s a floating jail. Who ever heard of such a thing! It makes sense though, given the sparse and tiny windows. Finally, a facility that I conjectured (and later confirmed) was a wastewater treatment plant. What a strange and dismal stretch of coast.

Abandoned in Hunts Point

Floating jail

Hunts Point Wastewater Treatment Plant

As we passed North Brother Island again, our guides told us about more of its history. In the 1950s and early 1960s it served as a facility to treat juvenile drug addicition. Famous poets and artists taught recovering addicts here, helping with the healing process and making art based on their experiences. Since ’63 the island has been abandoned and now hosts an important bird sanctuary. While listening, I gazed back at the island and this I could see a few other crumbling buildings above the trees.

North Brother Island

North Brother Island

Passing North Brother Island again

I looked out again towards the Bronx. This southernmost point was full of industry.

South Bronx industry

Some boat riders donned jackets or sweaters. There was a bit of chilly breeze off the water now that it was getting dark, but I was still comfortable enough, having put on my long-sleeve t-shirt at the start of the trip.

On the boat

As we traveled south I could see the train tracks crossing the Bronx-Randalls Island span before heading to Queens over the Hell Gate Bridge. While this short span is less impressive than the main span, it was still fun to see. I’m not sure I’d ever noticed it before.

Bronx-Randall’s Island Hell Gate Bridge span

Randall’s/Wards Islands were much more visible to me on this leg of the trip, as I was now on the side of the boat facing them. Guides talked more about the modern history of the islands. Improvements had been made recently to the many sports facilities here including the Icahn Stadium, and a tennis academy now made its home there. The island also hosts an FDNY training facility and a wastewater treatment plant.

Randall’s Island

Ward’s Island Wastewater Treatment Plant

Hell Gate Bridge approach on Randall’s Island

Soon it was time to pass under the beautiful Hell Gate and Triboro Bridges again. I paid just as close attention to the experience this second time, and took just as many, if not more, photos. The bridges’ details were less apparent in the dwindling light, but their dark silhouettes just as strong.

Hell Gate Bridge

Hell Gate Bridge with approach

Triboro Bridge over Randall’s Island

Hell Gate Bridge behind us

Sports facilities between bridges

Triboro Bridge

As the great bridges and Randall’s Island disappeared behind us, I snuck a last look at the turquoise Ward’s Island Bridge, tucked away behind the now-dark mound of island.

Triboro Bridge over Randalls Island

Triboro and Hell Gate bridges

Southern tip of Randalls Island

We were next to Mill Rock again for just a moment. It was now just an oddly-shaped blob in the growing darkness.

Passing Mill Rock again

We headed south, now closer to the east side of Manhattan. I watched this familiar place, the FDR Drive and Upper East Side, with new eyes from my vantage place atop the boat. I could pick out landmarks readily, like Carl Schurz Park and the different topography of the FDR Drive.

Upper East Side

Carl Schurz Park

FDR Drive under Carl Schurz Park

I reached out with my eyes across the water and to the shoreline in front of me. My brain processed the sights and integrated memories from so many years of driving this route, and my one experience (circumnavigating) on foot. Not to mention it was simply beautiful to see the dark concrete infrastructure lit up by lights on cars and in apartment buildings.

Layers of FDR Drive

I watched for one spot in particular: steps down from where the broad walkway is elevated above the FDR down to the East River Esplanade at street level to the south. Here, there’s almost a turret or a balcony – a circular landing at the top of the stairs where there’s the most beautiful view. Friend and I barely stopped here on our crazy circumnavigation walk, but I plan to return and soak in all of the sights available from this place.

Steps to East River Esplanade

For a bit, the forms got less clear (it was really getting dark now) and I didn’t spend the energy figuring out exactly what cross-street we were parallel with all the time. I half-listened to our guides’ additional bits of information about Roosevelt Island. These were things I knew already, that the island was currently being leased to New York State, it’s operated by a public-benefit corporation, and that in the island’s future are the Four Freedoms Park and a technology graduate center.

Dark buildings and moon

Smokestack silhouette

The guides provided a few last tidbits, like a story about a Salvador Dali drawing made for and then stolen from the place it hung in Rikers Island (it was never recovered). I gazed up at the now-dark Queensboro Bridge and tram cable support on the Manhattan side.

Dark Queensboro Bridge

Tram cable support tower

Passing the Queensboro Bridge

Our guides announced they had the latest edition of their book with them for a sale price, and they offered to autograph it. While I very much wanted to join the line for that, I couldn’t tear myself away from my floor spot and didn’t want to miss any of the nighttime beauty around me. I’d go up later, I thought, if it worked out.

We passed the United Nations headquarters and I enjoyed this rare view. In general it’s difficult to get very close to the complex from certain sides, most likely a security measure.

Moon over the United Nations

United Nations

As we continued south, the beautiful night skyline views continued. I rested my head against the chain-link railing at times, staring out through it. I could identify certain lit-up buildings in the dark mass of architecture.

Empire State Building

Power plant at 14th Street


Through the fencing

Our guides announced that the books were all sold out. I felt happy for them, but a little disappointed that I didn’t get one. Somehow, though, I felt this wouldn’t be my last chance. We passed under the Williamsburg bridge and I knew our ride would come to a close soon.

Moon and Williamsburg Bridge

I tried to hold the camera steady, hoping that at least some of my last photos in such low light would turn out. The movement of the boat didn’t help, but I set for underexposure and hoped for the best.

My bench friends asked if I’d be sore from sitting on the ground so long. I said I’d be okay, and joked a little with them about it. Even if I would be sore, I thought, this had been a great vantage point and I didn’t regret it.

Lower Manhattan

Manhattan Bridge in the dark

Manhattan Bridge in the dark

We passed under our final bridge, the Brooklyn. We’d come full circle, though how different everything looked in the dark. I could see the lights on Pier 17 at South Street Seaport and knew we would dock in just a few moments, though I felt reluctant to leave.

Brooklyn Bridge and lower Manhattan

Almost back to South Street Seaport

As our boat settled back into her dock, the people around me gathered their belongings and prepared to leave. I got up to stretch but was in no hurry. I walked to the front to thank our two guides. I introduced myself and had a little conversation with one of them. I’m always unsure of how to sum up my infrastructural interests when telling people about them for the first time (and I do get asked). Hopefully one day I’ll have a beautiful and succinct answer. Other guide was preoccupied in another conversation, but I got to sneak in and say a quick thank you to him also.

My final mission was to find the director of OHNY, who had said a few words of thanks near the end of the tour. I spotted her and expressed my enthusiasm and gratitude for the organization and its programs. She was standing near one of the Board of Directors, and I felt even more humbled. We chatted for a moment, and I made a semi-awkward exit when she got busy saying other goodbyes.

I was a bit star-struck to meet all of them, and I glowed as I was one of the last ones off the boat. I replayed parts of the tour in my head walking inland, almost in a daze from such a wonderful experience. I loved what we got to see, I enjoyed the rich historical information, and all of this by boat made it that much more thrilling.

On the dock, a wash of white light caught my eye. It was the trapeze school whose offices were in the New York Central tugboat pilothouse! I stood and watched for a little while as teachers hooked students, one after the other, into a safety harness and handed them the trapeze. Another instructor shouted instructions from the ground, maneuvers were performed, and the student would land gracefully in the safety net. Flip to get down off the net, and it was time for the next student’s turn.

Trapeze school: getting ready

Trapeze school: swinging

I could have watched this all night – the way the instructors fluidly repeated setups and confidently gave directions, and the students so high up there – I wouldn’t have the courage. A person or two from the boat tour, including the guides’ family, stood to watch for a moment too, then moved on. Standing there in the glow of the light I filled the last of my camera’s memory card. That was my sign it was time to head home.

I walked back to the train realizing that I hadn’t even noticed my head cold the entire time I was on the boat. Was I getting better? Had the tour cured me? Apparently it didn’t hurt, and I slept soundly that night, so satisfied from the tour.

Other people wrote about the boat tour:

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