Roosevelt Island & The Tram Ride


It’s been over 10 years since I’ve lived in New York and living in Queens, I pass by Roosevelt Island stop many a times but I never stopped myself to actually explore the island. My morning runs along Astoria’s East River front, I can see the lighthouse and a beautiful domed building and I told myself, I’d like to visit that island. As the Spring finally begins to behave properly, I took the first beautiful weekend to visit Roosevelt Island.

There are 3 ways to visit Roosevelts Island. If you’re living in Astoria, there’s actually a bridge that connects to Roosevelt Island. I’ve taken it before with my dog and it’s a short bridge.

If you’re coming from or going to the city, you can take the F train that would stop at Roosevelt Island. The final option is take the tram from 60th and 2nd Ave, past Serendipity. It is the same fare price as the MTA and if you have unlimited MTA card, it’s a free pass. You can see the tram from the Queensboro Bridge aka Ed Koch aka 59th Street Bridge. I remember reading once that the tram broke down and people were stuck! With a fear of height, I really didn’t want to be in that situation. Yet, I find myself always pushing the limit of my fear. And of all days, it was a slightly windy day, so you can feel it shake. Each time the tram passes the pylon, the tram would shake and my legs trembled. I feared I might pee in my pants.
Roosevelt Island Station in Manhattan

A short ride later, less than 5 minutes, we arrived, swooping into the island like a gull coming in for landing. A bus awaits at the exit and it’s free. You won’t miss it. It’s literally 60 feet away from the exit and bright red. On the bus, you can see much of the island. The last stop (about a 10-15 minutes ride) before it returns is at the Octagan Tower. This was an old “rehabilitation center” for the insane, etc and now is converted into a residence home with extensions. Could the ghosts of insane patients or badly treated patients of that time still haunt this tower? I mean, seriously, did you look at the number of the address? 888!

Roosevelt Island: The Octagon Building

If you walk behind the Octagon Tower, you’ll find the Historical Walk that really wraps around the island, though at points it disappears due to construction of more “luxury” building though I wonder, how does one live on this lonely island?

This historic walk is mainly used by runners and bikers.

Roosevelt Island Historical Walk

At the northern tip of the island where the historic walk wraps around, there stands a lighthouse. It doesn’t appear to be working. The gothic style with its heavy looking stone and padlocked iron door tries to make up for its dimunitive size. Neither grand nor imposing, it stands as more of a delicate toy piece to ooh-and-aah by tourists and city dwellers who rarely see a lighthouse. It is rather cute to find one in New York City.

Roosevelt Island Lighthouse

The ambling walk back from the lighthouse was uneventful. You pass a small dog run. The roads are marked at 15 mph speed with no speedbumps. As you circle back towards The Octagon Tower, there are a random benches scattered outside an enclosed park, which requires permit to use. There is even a community garden before you enter the “luxury home” zone. Towering buildings of stale ’90s architecture loom over the tiny street, storing plazas of shops underneath, just enough to keep the local residents with their basic needs: nails, hair salon, Gristedes, a deli, a Chinese restaurant, a Subway sandwich shop, a school, a fire station. It’s a compact suburbia.

In all this, at the center sits an old farmhouse. Abandoned and unposted, it was hard to tell whether it was important or a forgotten piece of home waiting to be demolished. It turned out to be the original farmhouse owned by the Blackwell, which is the original name of the island before it was sold to the city and further named Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island Community

There is even a small chapel whose steeples are dwarfed by the surrounding condos. It is a lost time piece and similar to the lighthouse is a gothic style, remniscent of an old English church. An old liberty bell from West Troy sits in front of it like a relic well, unused and probably empty.

Roosevelt Island The Chapel of Good Shephard

The island boasts about 8 eateries, an additional one located inside the hospital at the north end: China Kitchen, M&D Delit & Grocery, Main Street Sweets, Subway, Piccolo Trattoria aka Nonno’s Focceria, Fuji East Sushi, Starbucks, and Riverwalk Cafe.

Roosevelt Island Restaurants

I ended up trying Riverwalk Cafe and Grill, since this was the only place mentioned by others who have visited.

It is a bar. Possibly a sports bar. In any case, I was the only non-white person entering the establishment.

The food was uninventive but I suppose that’s to be expected out of a surburbia location and atmosphere.

I ordered buffalo style chicken sliders and sweet potato fries and a side of carrots. As you can see, there’s only a little bit of “vegetables” on the sandwich, if you can call it that. It was barely 1PM and a group of sporty kids enter, loud and raucous and proceeded to play beer pong. This was when I knew it. Roosevelt Island is New Jersey in a smaller scale.

Roosevelt Island River Walk Cafe & Grill

Promptly paying the bill in cash, I set out to go back to Queens and its diverse neighborhood with yummy and interesting food.

I’m glad I went to visit Roosevelt Islands and had decided not to move there. It is not the place for me. There is a community of sorts but it seems too quiet, cramp, isolated, conforming, and a bit like a dystopian colony trying to pretend it’s really a bustling community of sorts or a “getaway” from the hustle of the city. At least the whole trip was a little less than 3 hours and only cost the price of an MTA fare.

Roosevelt Island Tram Station

Roosevelt Island View heading back