19 November 2012

Governors Island

A Special Installment of “A Helluva Town”

I recently ran an article on ROT about New York City’s unusual High Line Park, built 30 feet above the far West Side of Manhattan in the bed of a disused elevated rail line (see “High Line Park,” 10 October).  New York’s full of parks, as most people know, and not a few of them are unusual and even unique.  (The only other “park in the sky,” as Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe called it, is the Promenade Plantée in Paris, the model for High Line Park.)  Another public space in the city that’s at least uncommon is Governors Island Park in New York Harbor.  If the High Line is a park in the sky, then Governors Island is a floating park.

I’d never been to Governors Island before July 2010, when I attended a performance of that summer’s Lincoln Center Festival on the island (see my ROT report on Teorema, 3 August 2010). The 172-acre island was an army post from 1794 until 1966 when the Coast Guard took it over.  In 1996, the USCG abandoned the station and in 2003, New York State and New York City “bought” the island from the feds for $1.  They still haven’t figured out exactly what to do with it all—some proposals have been floated, including some commercial, for-profit use, but many decisions haven’t been made—and at present there’s little there aside from old buildings, the park-like landscape, and the spectacular view of lower Manhattan, downtown Brooklyn, New Jersey, and the harbor with the Statue of Liberty prominent to the west and the silhouette of the Ellis Island immigration facility beyond.  At night, with the skyline and the East River bridges lit up, the view is worth the free ferry ride over, but the island isn’t currently open after 7 p.m. except for special events like the LCF performance, so getting to see that nighttime vista is tough.  There are also almost no facilities on the island yet, except for a few food vendors, swings, and hammocks for relaxing in the relative tranquility of an island in the middle of New York Harbor.  Basically, you can hang out, hike the circumference of the island, or pedal the bike path around it.  There’s a tour of the old military fortifications (which are a National Monument, so the guides are U.S. Park Service personnel) and there are some buildings in use for art exhibitions and installations, but otherwise, it’s basically a place for communing. 

The island isn’t even open for tourists during the week yet; it’s usual public operating hours are on the weekend from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday and until 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday, but in 2012, the island was closed to tourism on Fridays so that infrastructure upgrades can be accomplished.  (It’s also open on the Monday holidays during the season, Memorial Day and Labor Day.)  When Governors Island has been developed for visitors more than it was two years ago, I’ll wholeheartedly recommend a trip over for an afternoon.  Unhappily, unless the city expands the hours past 7 p.m. (or the island remains open later in the year than the end of September when twilight falls earlier), you’ll miss that evening ride back in the dark and the view from the island to the sparkling city over the water with the lower Manhattan and downtown Brooklyn cityscape lit up.  On the other hand, the ride is free.

In Upper New York Bay, the original, natural island was about 70 acres until the Army Corps of Engineers oversaw the dumping of nearly 5 million cubic yards of landfill from the excavation of the Eastside IRT subway tunnels at the south side of the island in 1912, adding about 103 acres to it.  About 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, like the dot at the bottom of a Manhattan Borough exclamation point, Governors Island is separated from Brooklyn only by the width of Buttermilk Channel.  The Native Americans living in what is now the tri-state area, principally the Lenape, valued the island as a seasonal fishing camp and for its abundant hickory, oak, and chestnut trees, naming it Pagganck (“Nut Island”).  In 1611, Dutch explorer and fur trader Adriaen Block named the island Noten Eylant, the Dutch translation of Pagganck.  The local tribes began using Noten Eylant/Pagganck as a convenient location to conduct trade with the European settlers and in 1613, Jan Rodrigues from Santo Domingo, a free man of African descent, was posted to the island, becoming the first non-Indian to live there, to act as translator and trade negotiator for Block.  

In 1624, Noten Eylant was the landing spot for the first Dutch settlers of New Netherland, 30 families arriving from Holland on the New Netherland.  The first fortifications on Noten Eylant were erected that same year.  In 1633, Wouter Van Twiller arrived on the island with a 104-man regiment, making the first use of it as a military base.   On 16 June 1637, Van Twiller bought Noten Eylant from the Lenape Indians for two ax heads, a string of beads, and a handful of nails.  A year later, the Dutch government seized the island and maintained it as part of New Netherland until Britain captured the Dutch colonies in North America in 1664. 

In 1665, the colony of New Amsterdam was renamed New York and Noten Eylant was corrupted into Nutten Island for about a hundred years.  The British colonial assembly immediately saw Nutten Island’s natural beauty and set it aside exclusively for “the benefit and accommodation of his Majestie’s Governors” by 1674.  Though not used as a permanent official residence, the governor's house, originally built around 1703, is the oldest structure on the island.  Although Nutten Island was not officially renamed until after the American Revolution, it came to be called “The Governor’s Island” from then on.   

In 1776, the British evacuated New York and the Americans fortified the island overnight on 9 April with earthworks to protect New York Harbor.  The only shots ever fired in combat from the island, colonial troops fired on British ships during the Revolutionary War from the island until 27 August 1776 when the British defeated the colonial army in the Battle of Brooklyn (also known as the Battle of Long Island), the largest campaign in the war, and Gen. George Washington retreated from Long Island and the Governor’s Island.  New York City remained a royalist stronghold throughout the Revolution.

After the British surrender in 1783, the city and its islands returned to American control and what officially became Governors Island in 1784, losing both its article and its apostrophe, became the territory and responsibility of the newly constituted State of New York.  Officially, the island is part of the Borough of Manhattan, otherwise designated New York County.  (The boroughs are city divisions; counties are state entities.  For an explanation of New York City boroughs and their coterminous counties, see my ROT article “A Helluva Town, Part 1,” posted on 15 August 2011.)  The island served no military use for several years, but in 1794, with the country in need of a system of coastal defenses to meet threats to territorial security and foreign trade from the hostilities between Britain and France (the Napoleonic wars), New York State began the construction of Fort Jay—named for John Jay (1745-1829), a Founding Father, the second Governor of New York State, the first U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs (now called the Secretary of State), and the first Chief Justice of the United States—on the remains of the Revolutionary earthworks in the center of the island.  The star-shaped fort was completed in 1794, confirming Governors Island’s long history as a military base, and it was transferred to federal ownership in 1800.  Fort Jay, renamed Fort Columbus (until 1904), was reconstructed in 1806 and ’09, and Castle Williams—named for Lt. Col. Jonathan Williams (1751-1815), the first American-born military engineer and a grandnephew of Benjamin Franklin, who designed the circular fortification—was completed in 1811.  In the War of 1812, these coastal defenses helped deter the British navy from entering New York Harbor, which they blockaded instead. 

The Governors Island fortifications became militarily obsolete by 1830 and the island’s purpose became largely administrative.  During the Mexican-American War (1846-48), the island’s facilities were used as a recruiting center, a function that continued during the Civil War when Governors Island also served as a POW installation for captured Confederate soldiers.  Following the Civil War, Castle Williams was used as a military stockade, a prison for soldiers convicted of crimes, until 1965 and in 1878, the whole base became a major army administrative center.  In 1904, Elihu Root, Secretary of War (1899-1904) under Pres. Theodore Roosevelt, renamed Fort Columbus for John Jay and named the entire island’s military facility Fort Jay.  Root (1845-1937) instigated the 1912 expansion of the island to its current size with the landfill.  In World Wars I and II, the island served as a supply depot for the U.S. Army, including the Air Corps.  In 1939, Governors Island became the headquarters of the U.S. First Army. 

During Governors Island’s occupation by the U.S. Army, three members of the Grant family served there: Capt. Ulysses Grant (1822-85) was there in 1852-54; Gen. Frederick Grant (1850-1912), President Grant’s son, was in command there twice until his death in 1912; and Frederick Grant’s grandson, Col. Ulysses Grant III (1881-1968), was chief of staff for the commander there in 1936-37.  Wilbur Wright took off from and landed on Governors Island on 29 September 1909 for the first over-water flight in the U.S.  The Smothers Brothers comedy duo were born on the island, Tom in 1937 and Dick in 1939, and comic book artist Neal Adams (Batman, Green Lantern) was born there in 1941.  A couple of writers have lived on the island: Janet Lambert (1894-1973), a young-adult author of the 1940s through the ’60s, while her husband was the post commander in the 1950s, and Lois Lowry (b. 1937), author of The Giver (1993), during her high school years while her father was an army dentist posted there.  Michael Collins (b. 1930), NASA astronaut, spent a portion of his teen years on Governors Island.  On 8 December 1988, the island served as the meeting place of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, President-elect George H. W. Bush, and Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.

In 1964, the Department of Defense designated Governors Island as one of the bases to be closed in 1966 to cut costs and reduce the number of underused facilities.  When the army moved out on Changeover Day, 30 June 1966, the U.S. Coast Guard moved in.  The USCG, an agency of the Department of the Treasury until 1967, consolidated many area facilities onto the island and was able to offer Coast Guardsmen schools for their children and recreational amenities for their families.  The island, the largest USCG base in the world (with 3,500 residents at the base), became the headquarters for the Coast Guard’s Atlantic Area Command.  The Coast Guard stayed on Governors Island for 30 years, leaving in 1996 when the facilities in New York City had become obsolete to the USCG’s coastal defense mission.  By then, the island had served over 200 years as a U.S. military facility.  During the 20th century (and some of the 19th), assignment to Governors Island was considered a prestige posting, not just for the military significance of the base—many officers stationed on the island went on to senior commands and greater responsibilities—but because of its connection to New York City, rapidly becoming the most important city in the United States and, as far as many thought, the world. 

During the island’s long military history, access was severely restricted and few New Yorkers, much less tourists, ever visited Governors Island.  Before the construction of Brooklyn’s Floyd Bennett Field, dedicated in 1930, Governors Island was considered for the site of a city airfield, but it was never built, and in 1939, New York City master builder, Robert Moses, proposed a cross-harbor bridge with one base located on Governors Island, but the War Department rejected the idea as an impediment to access to the Brooklyn Navy Yard across from the island.  The Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel, which opened in 1950, crosses under the harbor, passing by the island’s northeast corner where a ventilation tower can be seen.  The only way to get onto the island, aside from trying to swim, is by boat or aircraft, and the military controlled the access by both.  It was a little like Alcatraz in reverse: those on the island could leave as they pleased but no one wanted to escape the little self-contained community; off-islanders who wanted to get in were prevented by water and armed guards. 

Between 1996, when the USCG left, and 2003, when the island first opened to the general public, it essentially lay abandoned, inhabited only by caretakers, maintenance workers, and National Park Service employees.  Ninety-two acres of the island, encompassing the two military fortifications, had been designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985, but no visitors could come over and appreciate it. 

The 1996 congressional legislation that mandated the disposal of federal property required that Governors Island be sold at fair market value, but Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York inserted a provision in the bill that gave New York State first refusal on the property.  The state had to come up with a plan for the use of the island as a public asset and city and state officials, civic activists, and private developers all began pitching ideas.  A competition was held in 1996, attracting over 200 submissions from students, scholars, and professionals, including entries from 14 different nations.  On 1 April 2002, Pres. George W. Bush, Gov. George Pataki, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the United States would sell Governors Island to the people of New York for $1, and on 31 January 2003, 150 acres of the island were handed over to the State of New York; the remaining 22 acres were transferred from the Department of Transportation (of which the USCG was at that time a component) to the Department of the Interior and designated the Governors Island National Monument under the management of the National Park Service.  On 14 July 2010, New York City assumed responsibility for New York’s 150-acre portion of Governors Island from the state, and its administration was assumed by the Trust for Governors Island, a New York City agency.  Last 12 May, Mayor Bloomberg broke ground for the planned city park and public space, one designer of which is the firm of Diller Scofidio + Renfro, one of the architects of the High Line Park. 

The park will be located on 87 acres in the center of Governors Island which is currently undeveloped open area.  The northern end of the island, occupied by the historic military structures that include the housing and regimental administrative buildings as well as the fortifications, will remain essentially unchanged aside from necessary renovation and restoration of existing structures.  (One proposal rejected by the Park Service as inconsistent with the structure’s historic status was the conversion of Castle Williams into a New Globe Theater, conceived in partnership with London’s Globe.)  The coastal areas along the east and west sides of the island will be developed commercially.  The entire island will be ringed by a circumferential promenade. 

The current blueprint for the redevelopment of Governors Island spans 10 years, the first phase of which is now underway.  Phase one, expected to be completed by 2013, includes plans to upgrade Soissons Landing, the ferry pier, to provide better access to the island; redesign the Parade Ground for lawn sports; add park amenities to the 34-acre Historic District; construct a drinking-water system; repair the seawall; add Liggett Terrace, a six-acre plaza with seasonal plantings, and Hammock Grove, a new 10-acre shaded, wooded area containing hammocks for visitors; turn South Battery into a lawn around the historic fortifications; and install the 14-acre Play Lawn which will include two new baseball fields.  Plans for future phases of the development, for all of which Mayor Bloomberg has allocated $250 million, are in progress and the only restrictions are that they may not include permanent housing (that is, no condos) or casinos.  The aesthetic goal for the Trust, which oversees the renovations and improvements, is to develop the island’s accommodations and facilities without making the changes obtrusive, to provide more concessions and vendors to serve visitors without turning the island into a commercialized zone. 

In addition to the park and the National Monument, Governors Island is now home to a public high school, the New York Harbor School, originally located in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and artists’ studios run by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council in one of the historic  buildings.  A three-acre commercial organic farm operated by a non-profit organization was launched on Governors Island in 2009, and two years ago, New York University announced plans for a satellite campus, complete with student and faculty housing, on the island.  Commercial development, along the shorelines, is also planned as a way to raise revenues; among some of the proposals are a conference center, restaurants, and retail stores.

During the season, a visit to Governors Island starts with the free ferry from the Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street, catty-corner from the Staten Island Ferry Terminal, in lower Manhattan or from Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park at the foot of Atlantic Avenue at the corner of Columbia Street in Brooklyn.  (Both locations are accessible by subway and bus and there’s parking nearby, though street parking is limited.)  The boats run every half hour from Manhattan and every 20 minutes from Brooklyn and land you at Soissons Dock on the north end, almost directly across from the lower Manhattan departure point.  (There’s also a NY Waterway ferry across the East River from DUMBO, Williamsburg, and Greenpoint in Brooklyn that costs $4, plus $1 for bikes.)  The ferry trip was nearly the best part of my visit—a seven-minute cruise across a corner of the harbor with the city skyline at your backs, the Statue of Liberty in the middle distance, and the harbor spread out before you.  It’s a wonderful little treat in itself, especially on a beautiful day when you can stand at the rail and watch the harborscape flow by.  As the downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines recede behind you and the New Jersey shoreline runs parallel to your route (albeit at a great distance), you get a fantastic view of the Statue of Liberty over the starboard side (where I happened to be standing) and Ellis Island beyond it.  The working harbor is also laid out around you with the various vessels that ply the waters, from pleasure boats to tour boats to ferries to tugs and other working craft, and the water shines and sparkles in the sunshine.  (Yes, I know it’s actually dirty.  It still reflects the sun.)  The last island-bound ferry from Manhattan leaves at 5:30 p.m. (5:10 from Brooklyn); the last return boats depart the slip at 7 p.m.

From Soissons Landing, the island offers a free tram (a sort of oversized golf cart) every 20 minutes to Picnic Point, an eight-acre lawn on the southwest corner that offers picnic tables, hammocks, and a spectacular view of the harbor and Liberty Island.  Otherwise, visitors are free to walk or bike around the island pretty much at will (except into areas closed for construction or renovation).  Bicycles can be transported on the ferry for free (except for the private ferries as noted) or there are bikes for rent on the island; tandems and quadracycles are also available.  Bike and Roll, the concession, offers Free Bike Mondays on the Monday holidays that the island is open.  (Bike fees are $15 for 2 hours, $20 for 4, and $25 for the whole day.  When the island reopens on Fridays, a limited number of free bikes will be offered.  Be warned, however: bikes have been known to “disappear” if you don’t keep them in sight.)  Aside from food trucks, the electric tram, and maintenance vehicles, automobiles and motorbikes are banned on Governors Island.  Though it’s scheduled for improvement, there is a 2.2-mile Great Promenade around the perimeter of the island that’s especially meant for bikers and strollers, providing the best views of the surrounding sights over the water, including Lady Liberty, the East River bridges, and the Brooklyn waterfront.

The federally administered Governors Island National Monument offers free guided walking tours of the historic area, led by Park Rangers.  This includes visits to Fort Jay and Castle Williams, Colonels Row, the Coast Guard barracks, Liberty Village (the Coast Guardsmen’s family housing area), St. Cornelius Chapel, and other sights among the over 60 structures in the monument district.  The two forts, with their long and unique military histories, have their own complex stories, but they’ve also served as locations for all kinds of non-historical events—such as the screening of a zombie film spoof at Fort Jay or the construction of a haunted house within the walls of Castle Williams.  The remainder of the island, the part that’s under city control, has few amenities so far.  Basically, you can stroll or bike around the island, picnic, kayak, hang out in the hammocks or Adirondack chairs provided, sit on the sand at the artificial Water Taxi Beach (no swimming, however), or fish (catch-and-release only and anglers over 16 must have a valid New York State fishing license).  Water Taxi Beach, just west of the ferry landing, is also a venue for concerts and dining.  There are art installations and the Figment Interactive Sculpture Garden as well as an 18-hole miniature golf course also designed by the artists of the collective Figment.  (Some of the holes are designed to recall New York City rooftops and the Cyclone rollercoaster at Coney Island.)  There are often special events, including reenactments, concerts (rock to classical) and performances, food festivals, or art exhibits and installations, scheduled for the island using the old buildings or the outdoor spaces.  This practice will expand considerably as the park is developed over the next decade.  One vision for the island park is to make it a “playground for the arts,” with its own cultural aesthetic developing autonomously and under the watchful eyes of the Trust and the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation (which approves proposals for cultural events and performances in city parks).  So far, the emphasis has been on offering as broad a spectrum of entertainments as possible and no proposal that’s been correctly submitted has been rejected.  Not that all the events will meet with the enthusiastic appreciation of all visitors as the quality and the clarity of the artistic concepts varies widely.

Nearly 450,000 visitors came to Governors Island in 2011 during the four months of weekends it was open to the public; it keeps increasing from season to season (which range from 50 to 60 days) and will certainly multiply quickly as new facilities and amenities are developed.  (Though the increase from 2010 was only one percent, attributed to a steamy summer and Hurricane Irene, the growth in tourism was over 100% from 2008 to 2009 and 60% from ’09 to 2010.  The Trust estimates that this year’s vistorship will cross the half-million mark.)  Currently, most of the structures on the island, though remaining eerily handsome Victorian or Romanesque Revival architecture, haven’t been renovated or restored and are still decrepit and empty like a ghost town.  At present facilities are limited: indoor bathrooms are located only in a building next to the ferry landing; port-a-potties are available elsewhere on the island.  Trailer bathrooms are located at Picnic Point and the indoor bathrooms and many of the port-a-potties are accessible to wheelchairs.  (There are restrooms at the Battery Maritime Building where the ferry departs Manhattan and Pier 6 in Brooklyn.)  Potable water, however, is generally not available on the island except the bottled water sold by the food vendors or the vending machines; there are as yet no water fountains.  Visitors can, of course, bring water with them from off island, which may be a good idea if you plan to hike or bike around the place. 

Visitors are welcome to bring their own food and non-alcoholic beverages, but grilling or cooking on the island isn’t permitted.  There are also some food suppliers on Governors Island, including several mobile vendors, such as coffee and sandwich trucks.  Food is also available at the King Avenue Food Court and Picnic Point from a number of concessionaires offering a variety of snacks, drinks, desserts, and light meals, though some prices can be high—$3 ice cream cones, $2 sodas and water—since they have a captive audience.  Though bringing in your own alcohol is prohibited, some of the vendors, namely Little Eva’s at Picnic Point and the Governors Beach Club on the north shore of the island, sell wine (including sangria at Little Eva’s) and beer for consumption on the premises.  (There are ATM machines on the island, but they charge a fee than can be substantial.  It’s better to bring your own cash.  The Governors Island Food and Amenities webpage gives up-to-date information about eating on the island: http://govisland.com/html/visit/food.shtml)

The island is extremely child- and family-friendly, as well as almost entirely wheelchair-accessible (including the ferries and most of the restrooms).  If you bring your own food, drink, and bicycle, a visit to the island will cost you nothing.  There are, however, some additional rules of conduct for visiting the island, aside from the ban on off-site alcohol; most of them are the same as for other New York City parks.  Smoking, of course, is prohibited, as are pets.  Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult to visit the island.   Anyone may be searched, along with their packages and totes, and the Trust for Governors Island has the right to refuse entry to anyone at its discretion. 

For information about visiting Governors Island, getting there, what’s available, special events, rules, and so on, there are two websites, both with multiple pages of facts, information, and advice that will be helpful: the Trust for Governors Island’s site, http://www.govisland.com; the National Park Service’s site for the National Monument, http://www.nps.gov/gois/index.htm.  The information phone number for the Trust is (212) 440-2200 and the NPS number is (212) 825-3045.  It’s wise not only to check for scheduled events (http:/www.govisland.com/html/visit/calendar.shtml), but to see what new parts of the island have been opened or upgraded as it will be an ongoing project for about a decade.


  1. Hey, is that your sole domain or you in addition to that have some more?

    1. Wheat--

      I assume you mean, Is this my only blog. It is--my one and only. I hope you asked because you found it interesting since I devote all the time I can to keeping 'ROT' up and (relatively) current. I'd never be able to manage a second blog or other website. (I don't even do Twitter or Facebook.)

      Thanks for your interest!