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A Beginner's Guide to Governors Island

Updated for the 2012 season

• Governors Island in New York Harbor, now open to the public on a limited basis, was a military base for 200 years. The Coast Guard closed the island in 1996, and in 2003 the federal government sold much of the island to New York. The National Park Service continues to manage the two historic forts on the island. 

• 2012: Open every Saturday, Sunday, and Holiday Monday through September 30.

• See Graphic Design: Now in Production, an exhibition of contemporary design in all media produced and curated by Cooper-Hewitt with the Walker Art Center through September 3, 2012. Open weekends 10 am-6 pm.

• The views from the island are stunning, and a trip affords a quick getaway from the urban canyons. 

• Visitors to Governors Island can walk the 2.2. promenade around the whole island and enjoy access to the northern part. The southern part is awaiting development.

• The Water Taxi Beach serves food and affordable drinks, including a few tasty beers on tap. Drinking beer on a hot day on a sandy beach while looking at the skyline of Lower Manhattan as viewed between plastic palm trees is an experience both pleasant and surreal. Mostly surreal.


• Because of its strategic location, the island was mainly used for military defense. Now because of its proximity to Manhattan and Brooklyn, the island is seen as the perfect beachhead for sand volleyball, contemporary art projects, cocktails, concerts that will not upset the neighbors, and utopian visions for the urban future.


• Architects McKim, Mead & White designed a structure on Governors Island that once housed an entire regiment.

• The vibe is low-pressured and relaxed. It's possible just to grab a book and a beach towel and go hang out.

• The architecture on Governors Island resembles a college campus. Plans for the island, however,  suggest things may get weirder in the future. See "Governors Island Vision Adds Hills and Hammocks" by Nicolai Ouroussoff, New York Times, April 12, 2010.


• It's possible to rent facilities on the island for a private event. While there on the opening day of the season, I saw a wedding party reception and watched a couple as they danced to their special country music tune. I was finishing my beer and thought I was back in the South.

• There is no apostrophe in the name of Governors Island, a fact that would serve as a point of embarrassment for any website or weblog that inadvertently stuck one between the "r" and the "s."


• The island has been used for high-level diplomatic talks, including a meeting in 1988 between President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at the stately Admiral's House. Much more about the meeting on this companion post.

• In 1909 Wilbur Wright inaugurated the first flight over American waters. He took off from Governors Island and circled the Statue of Liberty and came back.


• The deed signed between the federal government and the people of New York prohibited the construction of casinos and permanent housing.

• See Mark di Suvero at Governors Island: Presented by Storm King Art Center on the west side.



• It's easy to bring your own bike on the ferries to the island, but it's also easy to rent one there. Biking Governors Island is one of the best ways to get an overview.


• Ferries leave the Battery Maritime Building in Manhattan at 10 AM, 11 AM and then every half hour until 5:30 PM. Ferries return to Manhattan at 10:30 AM, 11:30 AM and then every half hour until 7 PM. Ferries run from Brooklyn's Pier 6 run between 11 am and 7 p.m.  Click here for official directions. If you know how to get to the Staten Island Ferry, then look for the Maritime Building just to the east. The R subway station is very close. Ferry service will run for special concerts and may involve extra fees if the particular performance costs money. If you're planning on exploring the island, leave on an early ferry.


• The island has become an ideal setting for a range of arts projects, especially outdoor sculpture and interactive displays.

• According to the official site's timeline, the first squirrels were brought to the island in 1895. Many years later, in 1983, a Burger King opened on the island and served beer.

• The TV series, Lost, should have ended with the dramatic surprise that the survivors were, in fact, stranded on Governors Island. That would have been awesome, encouraging a fan-based subculture to develop on the island.



• Tour the renovated Castle William (above) with a park ranger. The fort played an important strategic role in the War of 1812.

A few links:

Official site - Governors Island Preservation & Education Corporation
The Beach @ Governors Island. Music concerts.
• Scouting New York wrote a mind-blowing account in September 2009 of the excavation of a buried town on Governors Island.
Participatory and interactive art projects sponsored by Figment.
Sculptors Guide exhibit titled "Encounters."
• Read on Walking Off the Big Apple - The Reagan-Bush-Gorbachev Meeting on Governors Island: A Debriefing and a Walk.

Images by a sunburned Walking Off the Big Apple.









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