Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Governors Island

I visited Governors Island for the first time recently (not the newly opened Water Taxi Beach) and was immediately taken in by its odd and ghostly small-town charms. To get there, you ride the ferry from Manhattan, departing from the Battery Maritime Building, from under a pink roof dotted with golden stars.

Just a few minutes away, the island is green and lush, filled with architecture frozen in another time. Military forts built of red stone wrap around grassy fields. Houses, straight out of an Edward Hopper painting, hark back to some mid-century, middle-American dream.

All photos from my flickr

You expect to see mothers in aprons hanging laundry on a line, fathers watering the lawns, and kids in Daniel Boone caps riding their bikes through the lazy streets. But the houses are empty. Walk up on their ample porches, dusted with pine needles, and peer through smoky windows. In hollow living rooms, the floorboards are still gleaming.

At least one house has been turned into an art gallery for contemporary works from the Sculptors Guild. Strange abstractions wriggle through stately dining rooms, beneath chandeliers that once lit countless suppers. The ceiling is peeling.

It wasn't always this way. People lived here. People who, for some reason, have never (to my knowledge) written novels or made films about life on "The Rock." Looking at photos of these kids, I wonder what life was like on GI. Their experience remains a mystery to me. But not to each other. There's a Yahoo group called Governors Island Brats for people who grew up there from 1970-1985. There's also a website for former residents dating back to the 1940s.

Living strangely suburban lives just off the tip of Manhattan, they remember playing Atari and going to see The Goonies at the only movie theater on GI. They remember ice skating and riding their bikes to the country store. (Country store!) They remember going to school at PS 26--which is being, or already has been, demolished. They joined the Boy Scouts and the bowling league. They toasted marshmallows over a campfire.

Did they consider themselves New Yorkers? Or did they hew to this line from an old army brat poem: "I am an Army Brat. My hometown is nowhere..."? Either way, their ghosts haunt this island, drifting on the green breezes like laundry on a line.

Thanks to Jack Szwergold for helping to collect many of these links. Check out his GI photos here.

See also:
My GI photos on flickr
Governors Island Blog


EV Grieve said...

I've always wanted to go to Gov's Island... Your post has inspired me to do that. We were going to do that this past Sunday, but I didn't want to go the same weekend that the Barf Beach opened.

Bryan said...

My first trip out there I was blown away, even though I'd sailed past it through Buttermilk Channel several times. I still had no idea how extensive the little 19c village was, let alone the huge stone barracks.

My favorite detail: There was a huge motel 6 on the island for visiting families. It's now been torn down and replaced by a great lawn.

The whole thing reminded me of the Others'/Dharma Initiative's colony on Lost. And soon enough it will be filled with luxury condos, I'm sure.

Still, great place for a bike ride.

JakeGould said...

Bryan, before this degrades into a condo/coop slam of all of the places being developed, Governors Island will never be a commercial venture. It was given to the state of New York by the U.S. Government with the stipulation that it will be preserved (to my knowledge) as the equivalent of a National Park and a National Landmark. No condos or other such nightmares will make their way there. Plans are to use the historic buildings for public arts and even education programs. New York Harbor School has plans to move there.

This is a true gem that people should appreciate for what it is. A great free afternoon trip for anyone who wants to experience a small escape...

Oh, and you immediately notice another thing... No car or truck noise! Amazing place.

Melanie said...

Thank you for this lovely tour. I too want to visit Gov's Island one day--I just have to pry myself away from the EV for a day. Sounds like fun!!

Nathan Blaney said...

We were stationed on GI twice. It was a wonderful place then and its been very interesting to see it evolve into an entirely new thing... I'm glad more New Yorkers are getting to enjoy it!

Ken Mac said...

wow, that this has survived so close to Manhattan is amazing. Bet Bloomie wishes they kept the riff raff out.

Anonymous said...

I loved this post; I've always wondered about GI.

Do you know anything about Plum Island?

mingusal said...

I had friends in the Coast Guard and spent many vacations, before I moved here for good in the late 80s, visiting NYC and staying cheap on Governors Island. This was in the old guesthouse on the north shore with an incredible view of lower Manhattan. The Motel 6 (or was it a Days Inn?) was actually constructed around '87 or '88, not too many years before the entire island was abandoned.

I always marveled at how GI functioned almost like the city, quite literally looming in the background, wasn't there at all, and felt much more like a college campus in a small midwestern town than a part of NYC. I loved hanging out in my friend's barracks room, which felt just like my college dorm room except for the dead-on view of the Statue of Liberty out the large picture window. And the late night ferry rides moving slowly away from a ghostly lower Manhattan were just sublime.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks--it is definitely worth a visit. nice to hear from some folks who stayed on GI. and nope, i know nothing about plum island. isn't that where the montauk monster comes from?

Anonymous said...

I went to HS with a few kids who lived on GI. Many kids ended up going to Curtis HS on Staten Island.

KnicksBasketballNY said...

What about Rikers Island?

A few close friends of mine have spent some time there over the years.

Some of them have even managed to accomplish multiple visits within the short span of a few months.

Ed said...

Just a note of caution. Governor's Island is worth a visit, but the whole subway to Lower Manhattan to ferry thing (and remember this is weekend subway service!) makes it somewhat difficult logistically. You pretty much have to plan the better part of the day around your visit.

I only bring this up because there are plans to make this a kind of park, like the high line, and I think they are misconceived. Parks should be places you can just wander into. I think we will find that the best use of Governor's Island was actually its original use as a coast guard station.

JakeGould said...

Also, Ed is being too down about this. The ferries are free and run every 1/2 hour from Manhattan. Very quick walk from the South Ferry/Whitehall Street station or even Bowling Green.

FYI, there is a Brooklyn ferry service this year that runs every 20 minutes from Fulton Landing near the base of the Brooklyn Bridge from 11:00am to 5:00pm.

bryan said...

Ed -- for those who already live in lower Manhattan it's really not that big a deal. Just make sure you don't miss the last ferry over! You can also ride your bikes to the ferry landing and take them over with you, which prevents you from having to rent one once you're there.

JackS -- I may be wrong, but when I was last there I was talking to some ranger types who said the Parks/landmarking only applies to the north side of the island, where the military village is. It's my understanding that on the other side of the big fence that currently keeps visitors up north we'll eventually see condos go up. Who knows, though -- this place has had a million ups and downs over the years.

It's also no big secret that NYU has looked at student housing there. Sounds like a joke but it's not. I've heard JSex say that when he was approached with a plan to move the whole university there, he refused on the grounds that it would mean giving up their biggest asset: Manhattan. (Read that last line how you will.)

JakeGould said...

Bryan, can you stop spreading unsubstantiated rumors. Part of the very strict deed restrictions made when the island was passed from federal to local control is that there be no permanent residential or casino (they had to assert that) development. The breakdown as I understand it is 40 acres must be used as parkland, 30 acres for public benefit use, 20 acres for educational and the remaining land (about 1/3) be used for commercial purposes.

The chances of condos or a hotel being built there are zilch. Structures on the non-historic side are being torn down.

The only chance of some residential ever popping up there is someone coming up with a Roosevelt Island like plan for the area. But that seems unfeasible and would have to factor in transportation.

You see, I like following this blog to hear about NYC's woes, but what I can't stand are negative posts which seem to seek the most negative aspect of a good thing no matter what.

Can you enjoy something for what it is? It's a really great place.

Carolyn said...

I lived on the Island in the mid 70's and was able to see the Twin Towers being constructed. Life was great on the Island and looking back now as a parent, it was a great place to raise a child. The Island was a community and there were tons of things for the kids to do and friends to be had. I remember the rule being come home before dark. Now that us kids have grown up we still have our community on our online group. Because you lived on the Island you share some of those same experiences whether you lived there in the 60's, 70's, 80's or 90's. Next time you are on the Island you might be there with some former brats. I'm sure they would be happy to share their experiences with you as the Island holds a special place within our hearts.

bryan said...

Jack -- I'm not meaning to slam the place. To the contrary, I really enjoy it every time I'm there. I haven't been yet this summer but look fwd to it.

As for spreading rumors, I guess I forgot the rule about the internet being a place for hard facts. But you're right: what I said about possible development on the other side of the island was based on a random ranger's musings and not serious research. Your comment sent me reading around a little more: looks like plans have been solicited, devised, and scrapped several times over the last few years. Currently things look good for park space in the new development. But it also seems clear that a lot remains unknown. I'm crossing my fingers we don't see hotels, assuming you're right that condos won't go up. (As for the NYU plans, they remain "remote possibilities.") I'm not going to be Pollyanna about the possibility that development there could take a bad turn, even though, like you, I'd prefer to see the place remain low-key and lovely.

Speaking of which, those are lovely photos Jeremiah linked to.

Ed said...

When I last visited Governor's Island, the MTA was doing track work on something like all the lower Manhattan subways at the same time. So I walked to South Ferry from the City Hall stop, then back. OK, now its easier but you still have to allow forty minutes to get to Lower Manhattan on the subway, about ten minutes to wait for the ferry, then twenty minutes to get over. When I visited two years ago the last ferry back left on the weekends.

Its actually quite a bit easier to get to the island from Brooklyn.

On the weekends, the MTA has been implementing what amounts to a new subway map, though its not as bad as it was last year, so I've found I've been able to explore the city less than in the past.

I'm pretty sure Governor's Island doesn't have the infrastructure (water, sewage, let alone transportation) to support even a Roosevelt Island level of development. Roosevelt Island happens to be an interesting place and you can get there directly by subway.

Anonymous said...

I lived on Governers Island when my father was serving the US Navy in the 1980's.

They had a Burger King where I ordered Chicken Tenders. I used to get my haircut by an African American service guy. He gave me "The Mushroom".

I also used to shop at the "Comissary" market for food and all kinds of stuff.

We used to just drive our cars onto the ferry and they would drop us off.

It was cool because we had exclusive access and nobody else could go.

Unfortunately they closed it.

cat said...

Why did they clear the people out? Do we know? And when?

Thanks. Very interesting!

Anonymous said...

This is a wonderful post. I live a stone's throw from Governors Island right now, near Red Hook on Brooklyn, and we just took our first trip there yesterday. It's so surreal, very much a ghost town feel.

nonetheless said...

“A recent project that has a little bit in common with Governors Island is the High Line, the New York Central Railroad viaduct on the West Side of downtown Manhattan which Conrail abandoned in the nineteen-eighties. In its decay, it became a clandestine aerie; connoisseurs of dilapidation sneaked up there for a glimpse of a city gone to seed…The park opened in June. It is a strange and beautiful place, an architectural marvel, simultaneously rugged and delicate. It was also a fashionable cause, financed in large part by the donations of rich people who had discovered the pleasure of urban ruin, and of altered perspective. There is something decadent about the formal curation of rust and the fetishizing of decay. The movement brings to mind the landed gentry’s enthusiasm, in England two centuries ago, for constructing phony Roman or Greek ruins, “follies” on their estates.”


Useless Beauty, What is to be done with Governor’s Island?

by Nick Paumgarten, in The New Yorker

New York hotel said...

Happy to read this post. I'm searching the web these days for unique places to visit in the NYC area and also for one or two hotels (on-line ordering is possible) for a two weeks vacation there. well, the Governors Island looks amazing, like a spot of history inside noisy New York. are you sure there aren't any hotels on the island? :)

Anonymous said...

I visited in '86, '87, and in '88 while a cadet at West Point, as my military id allowed me to take the ferry over. It was an inexpensive way to enjoy Mahattan by staying in the hotel. I'm sorry to hear it has been closed to the military - as it was a gem for those in the know. A beautiful place and a harken back to the midwestern town like I grew up in - a neighborly place to get away from the city.

Unknown said...

My family lived there from 1987-91. At first we lived in 877; one of the big apartment buildings then we moved to New brick village. I loved everything about that island. Due to the fact that it was completely secure we were given almost free reign to go where we want. Most of our time was spent at the burger king, which also had a arcade and a bowling alley. When we weren't there, we were playing at the school (p.s.26) playground or the movie theater ( I vividly remember standing for the national anthem before the movie would start) my friends and I must have watched "Dick Tracy" at least 10 times that summer. My dad got transfered in the fall of 1991 to Montauk, long island. I really feel lucky that I was able to live in such a unique place, I miss it to this day.