Modern-Day Explorers Discovering Governors Island

September 15, 2008 at 2:42 pm Leave a comment

The population of Governors Island was 3,400 in 1990. Back then, the 172-acre island, in the middle of New York Harbor 800 yards off the tip of Manhattan, served as a Coast Guard base, off limits to most New Yorkers.

On Saturday, more than 2,500 people visited the island, roaming freely for the most part, and conducting a more casual sort of operation.

Couples pedaled bicycles on the rim of the island, with views of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the Lower Manhattan skyline. Children swung their clubs for holes in one on a rooftop called “Putter on the Roof,” part of a miniature golf course designed by artists. People tossed Frisbees, relaxed on the grass and took Charleston dance lessons dressed as 1920s flappers, all in the shadow of stately red-brick barracks, now abandoned.

“It’s got to be one of the best-kept secrets in New York,” said Greg Ivan Smith, 38, a filmmaker from Sunnyside, Queens, enjoying a picnic of tapenade and bruschetta with friends and neighbors on Saturday afternoon. “You feel like you’re on a New England college campus.”

Thousands of New Yorkers have been discovering the island’s secrets in recent years, as it experiences a rebirth as a weekend getaway. The island draws bicyclists, kayakers, fishermen, concertgoers, art lovers, history buffs, musicians and urban explorers of all ages.

It is a place rich with history and surprises: Over here are the cannons at Fort Jay that date to the Civil War, and over there, the Coast Guard may be gone but its blue street signs remain. The island has changed hands numerous times over the centuries, from the American Indians to the Dutch to the British to the Americans. It was a United States Army command headquarters and supply base in World War I and World War II. In 1966, the Army departed and the Coast Guard took over. And in 1996, the Guard, too, left.

In 2003, the federal government sold the island to New York for $1, a deal that some said was even better than the one Dutch settlers got in 1637, when they bought it from the Indians for two ax heads, a string of beads and some iron nails. Since then, officials from two agencies have been trying to raise the island’s profile: the Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation, a city-state partnership that runs much of the island; and the National Park Service, which operates 22 acres, including Fort Jay and Castle Williams, part of the Governors Island National Monument.

The number of visitors to the island has risen by the tens of thousands. So far this year, more than 100,000 people have visited, up from 56,000 in 2007 and 26,000 in 2006, according to the preservation corporation, which also provided Saturday’s count. On a Saturday in July, when the island played host to a festival celebrating the city’s waterfront and waterways, there were 7,200 visitors, about the same number of people as on a summer day at the more widely known Ellis Island.

“For several weekends this summer, we had more visitors in one three-day weekend than the entire summer in 2005,” said Leslie Koch, the president of the preservation corporation. “We’re trying to bring the island back to life and reconnect it with New York.”

Some of the reasons for the island’s growing popularity are its wildly diverse and eclectic events. One day in June, punk-rock bands and their tattooed and pierced fans shared the island with families attending Army Heritage Weekend festivities.

On Saturday, Michael Arenella and His Dreamland Orchestra put on a Jazz Age Lawn Party, where visitors took in the sights and sounds. Among them were Nanette McNamara and her husband, Richard, who sat at an elaborately decorated picnic table (the flowers in the coffee-can vase were fake, but the grapes in the bowl were real). The couple are from eastern Long Island, and Mrs. McNamara said she was happy that Governors Island was being discovered by so many people, but she hoped it did not become too popular.

“It’s kind of nice to have this whole big island to yourself,” she said. “It’s peaceful.”

Governors Island may be in New York City, but it is not of New York City.

Walking past the old, empty yellow houses that once served as officers’ quarters, or listening to the waves splashing against the rocks at the edge of the seawall fence, it is easy to forget you are within a mile of Wall Street. There is no subway line here, and except for staff vehicles, Fire Department trucks and an electric tram that provides tours, there are no cars. In one of the most expensive cities in the world, the island is that rare thing: cheap. The ferry ride, the admission and the tram tours are free, and bicycle rentals are free on Fridays for up to an hour.

Signs of the bustling city remain: There are fire hydrants and juice vending machines.

And even more change is coming. In July, the preservation corporation announced it was seeking proposals for an entertainment and dining operation and for art studios and exhibition space on the island. Last year, officials selected a team of architects to design a 40-acre park, a project financed by the city and state. It is expected to be completed by 2012.

But among the red oaks, Siberian elms and green expanses, there is the solitude of a place that Giovanni da Verrazano, the first European to sail into New York Harbor, beheld in 1524.

Alain Jacquot, 43, came to the island on Saturday from Park Slope, Brooklyn, with his wife and 7-year-old twin boys. They played miniature golf on a nine-hole course that is part of Figment, an annual nonprofit arts event. “I’ve lived in the city for 12 years, and this is the first time I’ve been here,” Mr. Jacquot said, proof, perhaps, that the discovery of new worlds, though on a far smaller scale, continues today.


New York Times

Entry filed under: Go Coastal, Manhattan. Tags: , , , , , .

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