New York City

A Big Anniversary: What Changed Roosevelt Island Life Forever?

Roosevelt Island life changed forever on October 29th, 1989, but you probably missed the anniversary. We never celebrate the day the subway opened here because we have mixed emotions. We shouldn’t.

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island News

When the subway opened on October 29th, 1989, Roosevelt Island life changed forever

“As of Sunday, October 29, 1989,” the MTA notice read, “subway service is revised.”

Roosevelt Island life changed when the Subway Station opened in 1989.
Our beaten down, weather-worn subway station was a sparkling gem in 1989. Hard to imagine, but it was revolutionary, the first new line in 30 years.

The recently discovered notice, reported first in Untapped New York, understated the case. Opening the 63rd Street Line was big news, and its impact on Roosevelt Island was revolutionary.

Imagine Roosevelt Island without a subway, depending solely on the Tram and the bridge to Queens. Now, add to that, a strict Main Street parking ban and PSD-manned booths controlling all traffic entering.

And imagine Z-bricks on Main, all along the canyon, and 15-minute passes for loading and unloading.

That’s what we lived with until that day in 1989 when Roosevelt Island life changed. Many longtime residents insist it wasn’t for the better, but the only sure thing is, it wasn’t reversible.

It was a revolution.

The impact…

As relatively remote as Roosevelt Island remains today, it was unknown to the rest of the city then.

This skeleton’s all that’s left of three PSD booths that once controlled all traffic allowed on Main Street.

First of all, plenty of people were afraid of riding the Tram, and why would they? There really was nothing here to see.

There was no…

The Octagon was a dilapidated shell on a lot filled with weeds, stray dogs and cats, and you didn’t go there after dark. Except, of course, for the weed-smoking kids who set the restored roof on fire in the late 90s.

But even that was unlikely without the subway.

Roosevelt Island life changed when the subway upgraded buses and expanded housing, starting in 1989.
Without the subway, no Manhattan Park, Octagon or the red buses they pay for.

All six buildings making up Manhattan Park went up in anticipation of the subway opening. And Roosevelt Island life changed dramatically with that because the four ringing the park were our first market rate rentals.

Manhattan Park got tax breaks, but they were the first non-Mitchell-Lama apartments. And the developer paid for new red buses because, without them, who’d ever want to live so far from a subway in New York?

Little known fact: Manhattan Park still pays the lion’s share for red bus service. The Octagon contributes too, but the other complexes… zero. As in nothing.

Roosevelt Island life changed because it’s all about transportation…

Plain and simple, good or bad, Roosevelt Island’s population would’ve lingered in the mid-four digits if the subway never opened.

Ask rental agents north of the Main Street canyon. You’ll find that the distance from subway to home is their biggest challenge.

Now, what if your only options were driving, MTA buses or a crowded, rickety Tram unloading into even more crowed buses?

The first Roosevelt Island Tram Cabisn
Original Roosevelt Island Tram cabins collect dust under a parking garage. Without the subway, they’d be dangling above the East River on baling wire.

Yes, the Tram would be rickety because they could never have shut it down for a rebuild, as it was ten years ago. By now, the only things holding it perilously above the East River would be duct tape and baling wire.

And RIOC would be bankrupt, Main Street just as littered with storefront vacancies as it is today.

A dash of history…

On October 29th, 1989, the 63rd Street line opened, but it was already shrunken.

Envisioned as a cross-town line, linking the then newly built Lincoln Center to north-south lines across Manhattan and into Queens, it was chipped away by decades of inadequate budgeting.

And because it dead-ended at 21st Street in Queens, Roosevelt Island and Queensbridge Houses were the main beneficiaries. Hearts are made light by memories of fresh, clean Q trains racing through when you always had a seat.

On weekends, we got along with rerouted B trains, complete with lost travelers expecting the West Side.

The day my wife and I first came here, escorted on an Adventures on a Shoestring tour, a clean, not yet rusted or leaky subway station was touted as “the newest…”

And it was in an open field alongside the river with a towering, abandoned nurses residence just to the north. Main Street was two-way and almost car-free.

Immediately to the south was the original, less lovely Roosevelt Island Community Garden…

Roosevelt Island life changed conclusion…

Over at the Historical Society, Judith Berdy has tons of photos, and maybe someday, we can muster a before and after article.

But would all that nostalgia be worth it?

Roosevelt Island life changed because the city changed, and whatever disenchantments we have now, it’s been for the better.

Once the pioneering spirit wore off, the camaraderie of families settling on this unique, but fortified slab of Manhattan schist, the next generations would leave. Jobs and lifestyle opportunities elsewhere would overwhelm the charm and quiet.

New York State would finally end subsidies, forced by one budget crisis or another, and the WIRE buildings would age gracelessly out of Mitchell-Lama.

The 21st anniversary of subway service here past last Thursday, and few noticed. And that’s unfortunate.

Roosevelt Island life changed because the subway vitalized it, bringing greater diversity and enough people for our very own Starbucks.

Kidding there, but you get the point.

And that point’s sharpened by noting that Cornell Tech, a campus with a shot at changing the whole world, landed here mainly because F train connections put Roosevelt Island smack on the line of New York City’s technology reinvention.

Next time you’re at the subway, try ignoring the MTA’s perpetual neglect and tip your hat, virtual or real.

Without that station, you probably wouldn’t be living here, making our community more diverse and exciting with your energy.


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