New York’s Island Haven, Secret No More
MARTIN HANAN of Manhattan is tough to please. This is a man who just returned from a Hawaiian vacation with nothing but complaints.Undeterred, he decided to try another island, so on a recent afternoon he boarded a boat for Governors Island.
The island, a public park open Fridays through Sundays for several years, had only just come to Mr. Hanan’s attention, which is surprising because it lies smack in New York Harbor, maybe 800 yards from the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. Mr. Hanan himself lives a short bike ride away from those skyscrapers, on the Lower East Side, and has stared out at the island countless times without realizing it.
“I can’t believe it’s so close,” he said as the ferry departed the Battery Maritime Building. Within seven minutes it docked at the island, with its green tree canopy and aging, decrepit buildings. It was old and eerie and strangely beautiful. But how would it rate with a man who panned Hawaii?
“It’s New York’s best-kept secret,” Mr. Hanan, 45, gushed minutes later, while biking along the island’s eastern edge with views of the Buttermilk Channel, the Brooklyn waterfront and the East River bridges.
On a map the 172-acre island can look like a tiny dot that turns skinny Manhattan into an exclamation point. A former military post with roles in the War of 1812, the Civil War and both World Wars, for roughly two centuries it served as a base for the United States Army and Coast Guard, which officially left in 1996.
Since 2003, when Governors Island was passed from the federal government to New York State, its public access areas and visiting hours have steadily increased. This year it is open from May 31 to Oct. 11.
To hear island officials tell it, Governors Island has come of age this summer, with the opening of the southern portion and the 2.2-mile promenade around the perimeter. Also newly opened is Picnic Point, an eight-acre lawn on the southwest corner that features hammocks, picnic tables and what officials declare are the best shore views of the Statue of Liberty. This month a dining and entertainment spot called Water Taxi Beach opened, adjacent to the ferry dock, boasting an ambitious menu and tied in with a nighttime concert series that includes Erykah Badu on Aug. 4 and the B-52s on Aug. 18.
As part of an exhibit it is calling “Plot/09: This World & Nearer Ones,” the public arts group Creative Time has installed pieces around the island, including a sculpture in light by Anthony McCall that casts thin beams of white light down from the ceiling of the otherwise pitch-black St. Cornelius Chapel. It is quite a jarring departure from the brightly sunlit island, and visitors stagger back out into the daylight, shielding their eyes. Near the chapel hanging from a tree is an oversize wind chime — a work by the artist Klaus Weber — dangling and jangling in the breeze. At the long-vacant Fort Jay Theater, a spoof zombie film plays regularly, in a space that seems spookier than any horror movie.
On the lawn near Liggett Hall is an artist-designed 18-hole miniature golf course, with holes inspired by city rooftops, the Cyclone roller coaster and even an electric guitar.
And people are coming. The island attracted more visitors in a three-week period this summer than the 26,000 who visited during the entire 2006 season. On average, in nice weather, 4,000 to 5,000 people visit daily on the weekends, and roughly 1,500 on Fridays, according to the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation. Those figures are based on counts done by ferry officials to make sure the number of people leaving the island matches the number who arrived. (There have been attempts to stay over. Last year security workers found one couple hiding in a closet.)
Even without the special events the island has a lost-in-time appeal, like New York’s very own Twilight Zone. Its northern 92 acres fall under federal and city historic landmark status. There are miles of bike paths; guided tours are available, conducted by rangers from the National Park Service, which oversees part of the island, including Castle Williams and Fort Jay. Or you can wander aimlessly along rows of handsome, if faded, Victorian and Romanesque Revival buildings that once housed military personnel.
On the island’s southern portion the faded barracks and warehouses are fenced off and scheduled for demolition and redevelopment into parkland. Visitors rave about the views here, among them Leslie Koch, president of the Preservation and Education Corporation.
“I sit out on Picnic Point, looking out at the harbor, and think, ‘This is the greatest place in New York,’ ” Ms. Koch said. The plan, she said, is to open the island seven days a week within a few years. Her agency, a public corporation of New York State, is charged with operating and redeveloping much of the property, with city and state funds. The goal is to increase and improve the open space and develop it for a mix of educational and arts facilities and other nonprofit programs, while keeping the improvements and additions unobtrusive.
“It’s a balance: we want to make it more popular but keep its unique quality,” said Ms. Koch, 47, , who grew up on the Upper West Side but says she had never heard of Governors Island until its transfer in 2003, the year she was offered the job.
On a recent Saturday the crowds on the ferry, based on an unscientific survey, looked like a mix of families, couples, foreign tourists, cyclists and hipsters.
Two Manhattanites — Sharon Kahn, a psychology professor, and Barbara Liss, a social worker — said they enjoyed the island.
“It’s a free adventure; even the ferry ride is fun,” Ms. Kahn said. “I’d like to see more concessions, but you don’t want to get too commercialized.”
Asked to give a psychological assessment, Ms. Liss said the island fulfilled a need for people in crowded urban environments to get out of their small apartments. “The city can feel hotter than it is, and something like this is a real relief,” she said.
And what was Ms. Kahn’s professional opinion?
“I like it because it’s one of the few places in New York where you can play miniature golf,” she said.
By COREY KILGANNON
New York Times