Among my friends, especially the liberal ones, it is a matter of some curiosity that I, the least politically correct person imaginable, should live in a neighborhood that is a multiculturalist’s dream.
To be precise, it’s not a neighborhood, it’s an island—Roosevelt Island. Two miles long and a few hundred yards wide, it sits in the middle of the East River between Manhattan and Queens, stretching north across from the UN building in midtown up to Gracie Mansion, the mayor’s residence, in the upper 80s. It used to be called Welfare Island, and for a long time it was a dumping ground for every institution Manhattan didn’t want and couldn’t fob off on one of the other boroughs—prisons, smallpox and TB hospitals, an almshouse, a home for the insane, etc. By the mid-1960s, though, they had all fallen into disuse except for two long-term custodial hospitals at either end of the island.
It was then that someone got the idea of turning it into a residential community. But not just any kind of residential community. Those were the halcyon days of the Great Society and it was determined—in cooperation between the federal, state, and city governments—that Roosevelt Island would become a Model Community, a sort of updated version of Eleanor Roosevelt’s New Deal Greenbelt communities, Brigadoon in the Big Apple. (They named the island for Franklin, however, not Eleanor; I pretend it’s for Theodore.)
The first residents moved in in 1975, and a carefully selected group they were. The calibrations regarding race, ethnicity, religion, class, age, handicap—you name it—appear to have been most minutely drawn. It was and is The Family of Man [sic] come to life. Actually, there has been a bit of backsliding in recent years. The original apartment units were built by the government, and when public housing funds started to dry up, there weren’t enough people on the island to sustain all the small merchants necessary to keep it economically self-contained. So in the 1980s the state of New York, which owns the island, gave a one-hundred-year lease to private builders to open a new apartment complex, Manhattan Park, north of the original development.
That’s where I live, and it isn’t quite so socially pristine as the original site. Four of our five buildings charge market value rents, whereas the earlier community had a higher percentage of subsidized units. But even Manhattan Park is remarkably cosmopolitan. One reason is that it contains a large number of UN delegates and their families, especially from the Third World. They obviously find the ambiance of the island attractive, and no wonder—it embodies the Gorgeous Mosaic that former mayor Dinkins so often invoked and that the city so seldom resembles.
It’s also a remarkably nice place to live. (Even my wife, who hates New York with a passion it is impossible to overstate, says that if, God forbid, you have to live there, Roosevelt Island is the place.) You’re (technically) in Manhattan, but decidedly not of it. The first step off the subway or aerial tram—the only bridge to the island is from Queens, not Manhattan—and the pace slows, the tensions ease. It’s like living in the suburbs, except that the commute is a lot shorter and you can get back to the city in just a few minutes if you want to. Plus there’s the magnificent view: my bedroom window commands a vast panorama of the Upper East Side, and I regularly compare my vista with that of people across from me who, in addition to paying substantially higher rents for comparable apartments, have nothing better to look at than our unprepossessing island or, behind it, the warehouses and oil storage tanks of Queens. (The moral danger in living on Roosevelt Island is a tendency to an insufferable smugness.)
Great efforts are made to maintain the island’s small town atmosphere for its 8,000 residents. The lone street that meanders up the island is, of course, Main Street, and it’s lined with kiosks carrying notices of community events and paved with the red Z-bricks that are today’s version of cobblestones. There’s lots of green space, a charming park (complete with picturesque lighthouse), playing fields of every variety, a new school, a bi-weekly newspaper, a landmark Episcopal chapel, now interdenominational (along with a Catholic parish and a Jewish congregation), and even an island bus-fare, ten cents—for rainy days or for those people who find a maximum fifteen-minute walk more than they’re up to. The local merchants—there’s basically one of everything on the island—also cultivate the small town mood, and few of them display the routine impersonal surliness that so often makes shopping elsewhere in the city such a dispiriting experience.
On top of all that, Roosevelt Island is two other things most of the rest of the city isn’t: clean and safe. The cleanliness derives not only from civic-mindedness, but from a firm (and wise) prohibition against dogs. Unlike other New Yorkers, we islanders walk with a carefree step. That the walking is safe as well as doodoo-free truly sets us off. When I hear police sirens in the night, I can be virtually certain they’re off-island.
So, a wonderful place to live. But, as my liberal friends like to point out, not the most obvious place for me to live. It is, after all, a planned community. All my anti-collectivist instincts, it is true, rebel against that notion, and I am more than a little chagrined that I live in what leftists like to call a social laboratory. But there it is and there I am.
There’s also the island’s politics. Even by Manhattan standards, Roosevelt Island is left-wing to the point of looniness. In the 1992 presidential race, Bill Clinton got 78 percent of the local vote, George Bush 15 percent. I can safely claim that in my five years here, I have not once voted for a candidate who carried the rest of the island. And the islanders take their politics seriously. Even the local liquor store—I think of it as People’s Booze—posts notices of the next meeting of the Rainbow Coalition and features petitions furthering one or another progressive cause or candidate. The owners and clerks are very decent people, but I suspect that if they knew my politics, they would cut off my supply.
Still, the ironies cut both ways. After all, most of my liberal friends, earnest champions of integration that they are, live in largely white, middle-class neighborhoods. I, on the other hand, who have always argued that except for imposed restrictions residential patterns ought to be allowed to sort themselves out, live in as integrated a community—by any definition—as exists on Planet Earth.
It’s also interesting that the island itself doesn’t let its political correctness get in the way of fundamental common sense. The island, as I noted, is normally safe, but last summer we had a mini-crime wave—a flurry of robberies and muggings, most of them tied to teenagers. The public reaction, as reflected in letters to the local newspaper, was not “What are the root causes of this social deviance?” but rather “Let’s round up the little sociopaths and lock them up.” One woman suggested in addition that we keep out undesirables by setting up the equivalent of a border patrol on the bridge from Queens. It’s amazing what a little crime will do to deconstruct liberal orthodoxy.
What's the lesson of all this? Nothing in particular, perhaps, except maybe that reality is more complicated than any of our categories. In any case, no one in the Greater New York area should take what I've written as an invitation to move here. Like so many other island people, we don't take well to newcomers. Paradise overcrowded, after all, is paradise lost.