Daily Archives: September 7, 2010

The Big Apple’s Little Apple – Part 3

In 1921, this island was renamed Welfare Island, for obvious reasons.  Blackwell’s Island was not a place you wanted to voluntarily be.  Gangsters such as “Dutch” Schultz were being sentenced there and by 1935, the prison was run not by the prison officials but by two groups of gangsters who had been convicted for things like bootlegging, the protection rackets, and illegal betting.  Mae West was sentenced there for 10 days for appearing in her own first play, “Sex,” a mild script by today’s standards, I’m sure.  The Thomas A. Edison company made a film of the island from a boat cruising south, starting at the Lighthouse and showing the Lunatic Asylum, the Workhouse, the Almshouse, incomplete piers for the future Queensboro Bridge, the Almshouse Keeper’s House, the Penitentiary, and the Charity Hospital. 

There were very limited ways to get to the island, depending upon the decade within the century.  Boats, ferrys, bridges, a tram and the subway are but a few.  The most interesting to me is the elevator that was part of the Queensboro Bridge, primarily meant for ambulances.  They would pull onto the bridge, drive to a spot positioned over the island, and drive into the elevator, which would take them down to the island.  They were free then to zip around to whichever hospital they needed, and there were quite a few to choose from, I’ve heard.  I’ve seen and ridden on ferries from island to island but never gone island to island via elevator.  That is just mind-boggling to me. 

The Queensboro Bridge, 1999


In 1935, the prison officials took back control and moved all the prisoners to Rikers Island but the scandals were still being played up in the press.  In 1939, there was even a movie called “Blackwell’s Island” starring John Garfield.  I have GOT to find that movie!  I wonder if they used shots of the island. 

In 1969, the island was turned over to the Urban Development Corporation, which took a 99-year lease on the whole island, and in 1973, the island was renamed for the last time to Roosevelt Island.  It was advertised back then, I remember, as a “planned community” for all income levels and the island was supposed to be run by the people who lived on the island, along with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation.  That didn’t work so well because people on the RIOC were appointed by the NY governor and didn’t live on the island.  The local residents have been fighting to have self-government since then.  In April, 1999, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani held a town hall meeting and told the residents he was willing to help “liberate” Roosevelt Island.  The hero of 9/11 was going to work for Roosevelt Island.  I was impressed!  In September, 2002, the residents were officially given the majority of seats on the RIOC but it took a while before it actually happened.  Today, the Board of Directors of RIOC have 7 residents on the board out of 9 spots, which is fabulous! 

Plaque near Blackwell House, 1999


A renovated octagonal lunatic asylum?  A renovated trolley station?  A renovated tram?  What’s happening on that island?  What’s NOT happening on that island?  There’s one spot that has nothing to do with the Blackwell family but I have got to spend the night there.  Stay tuned for the last installment.