Roosevelt Island is that two mile long sliver of land, only 800 feet at its widest, that many of us have seen only while riding in a cab down the FDR Drive in Manhattan or while crossing the Queensboro Bridge. But with flat, paved paths running nearly the entire perimeter of the island, cool breezes off the river and almost no traffic, Roosevelt Island is a fantastic place to explore as a runner.
A LITTLE HISTORY
Prior to being named after President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1970s, this island had been called a lot of things over the years: Minnahanock, Blackwell’s Island and Welfare Island, just to name a few. You only need to take a quick look at the eclectic mix of architecture on Roosevelt Island and you’ll notice that it has an interesting history. A farmhouse from 1796. 19th Century hospital buildings. Modern residential units from the 1970s that look more European than classic New York. Brand new contemporary high-rise condos that are still being developed. What was once a Dutch settlement as early as the 1620s later became the home of one of New York’s most important prisons, housing some famous inmates such as Boss Tweed. I hear that Mae West even spent a few days jailed here too (for those who have read my post on Greenpoint, it looks like we’re following her everywhere). What seems like a tiny, quiet island in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge turns out to be a hot spot for some interesting history.
The first thing you need to know is…
HOW TO GET THERE
Roosevelt Island is accessible by foot only over the Roosevelt Island Bridge (originally called the Welfare Island Bridge when it opened in 1955), which connects to 36th Avenue in Queens. The pedestrian path is on the north side of the bridge. Currently there is a bit of construction here while they rehabilitate the bridge so pay attention to where you place your feet. Once on the Roosevelt Island side, don’t be tempted to run down the vehicle ramp because you won’t find a sidewalk here. Choose the safer option: the terminal next to the Motorgate Garage offers an indoor staircase that takes you down to Main Street and to the path on the eastern side of the island. If you drive here, the Motorgate Garage is the best place to park.
If you are planning on getting here by jogging from the Queensboro Bridge or from one of the Long Island City/Astoria subway stops, you should know that Roosevelt Island is not paticularly close to any of them. Study a map beforehand and expect to add some mileage to your run.
By Subway or Bus:
Take the F Train to the Roosevelt Island stop. The staircase brings you to the western side of the island. By bus, try the Q102 from Queens.
The most eventful way of traveling to Roosevelt Island is taking the tram over from 2nd Avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan. Providing transportation to the island since 1976 at 16 miles per hour, the trip takes about 4 1/2 minutes and departs every 15 minutes (or even more frequently, depending on the time of day). Although the MTA does not manage the tram, the fare costs the same as a subway ride and you can use your MetroCard to enter. It brings you over to Roosevelt Island right alongside the Queensboro Bridge and lets you off right by the Visitor Kiosk where you can pick up a couple souvenirs on your way home.
THE RUNNING ROUTE
The route takes you mostly around the entire perimeter of the island. There are a few spots where the waterfront is not accessible, but for the most part you are just a step away from the East River. Click here for a map. The entire loop including Southpoint Park comes to just over four miles long and can easily be doubled for an eight mile run. You can start anywhere along the loop depending on how you get there, but I’ll describe it here from the Roosevelt Island Bridge going north in a counter-clockwise direction. There’s a lot to see – so keep your eyes open – but here are a few highlights.
Remains of the Lunatic Asylum The first interesting landmark you’ll come across is the Octagon, a white, eight-sided 19th Century building that was once part of the NYC Municipal Lunatic Asylum. According to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, Charles Dickens visited this site in 1841. Today, the Octagon has been restored to serve as the lobby of an apartment building. Sounds like it could be a fun place to live.
Lighthouse Park The northernmost tip of the island is a nice park capped by a charming lighthouse built in 1872 and restored in 1998. It’s a good place to wave to fellow runners on the other side of the river making their way through Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side. Since it stands at the Hell Gate where a couple waterways meet, it’s also a great spot to catch sight of the boats sailing along the river.
Amazing Views of Manhattan The western side of the island provides some of the best views of the Upper East Side and Midtown East. See if you can spot the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, the United Nations and the Queensboro Bridge – and that’s just the beginning of the list. Don’t be too distracted by the Manhattan skyline, however. You won’t want to miss Tom Otterness’ three-part sculpture, The Marriage of Money and Real Estate, which is installed in the river just feet from Roosevelt Island’s shore on the western side.
Southpoint Park South of the Queensboro Bridge you’ll find a chain link fence with barbed wire and a gate. Enter here for Southpoint Park.
Yes, you are allowed to enter, even though it doesn’t look like it, as long as it’s during the designated hours of 8:00 am to dusk. The path turns abruptly from sidewalk and paving stones to packed dirt and coarse gravel (watch your footing). The undeveloped land takes a spooky turn as you come across the ruins of the Smallpox Hospital from 1854, designed by the same architect who gave us St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It’s one thing to see this from the FDR drive in Manhattan, but seeing it up close makes the entire trip worthwhile.
Run all the way to the southern end of the island and you will have great views of Midtown East right across from the U.N. and also of the famous Pepsi-Cola sign in Long Island City.
Exit the park the same way you entered and follow the sidewalk until you reach the eastern side of the island. Continue along the path until you reach the Roosevelt Island Bridge again, taking you approximately four miles around.
The path along the river is a popular spot for many fisherman to cast spin rods. Keep your eyes open to avoid tripping over any fishing poles.
There are several water fountains around the island, usually found in the public park areas and playgrounds. Unfortunately, most of them don’t seem to work. Be smart about hydration and bring some fluids with you or at least bring a little cash to buy a bottle of water.
Finding good waterfront running in New York is a great way to escape the insanity of the city – and Roosevelt Island offers some of the best running on the East River with unbeatable views of Midtown East. Once you’ve completed the run, check out this film by Thomas Edison from 1903 and see if you can spot some of the buildings you just ran by. There are more landmarks and other interesting things to see in the interior of the island along Main Street, so if you have the time, stick around to explore. Visit the Roosevelt Island Historical Society for more information.