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Visions of the New Metropolis: A Steampunked Ride to Roosevelt Island

This is the third and final post in a series on Steampunk culture.

Steampunk, explored in the previous posts on Union Square and Dumbo, is powered by alternative visions of the city, usually the sort of neo-Victorian futuristic cities as imagined by Jules Verne or H.G. Wells or even the American writer Edward Bellamy (1850-1898). The latter's utopian bestseller, Looking Backward (1887), dreams of the America of 2000 - Boston, to be specific - when a more equitable distribution of wealth has replaced an unfair economic system and where fantastic inventions have revolutionized the comforts of everyday life.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
Leaving Manhattan. View of the Queensboro Bridge and east side near E. 60th Street.

Bellamy imagined an ideal society where everyone spends the same amount of money, dispersed on cards (how odd!), and even listen to live music in their homes via a wire (nah, would never happen). Bellamy's ideas about the future of cities influenced many others during this time, including Ebenezer Howard and his Garden Cities of To-morrow (1898; re-issued in 1902). Howard's work, in turn, influenced American literary and architecture critic (and native of Flushing, Queens), Lewis Mumford (1895-1990).

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
arriving on Roosevelt Island via the Tram.

In many ways, Roosevelt Island has often served as a template for similar utopian thinking. Long a site of welfare institutions, in the 1960s and 1970s urban planners reconceptualized the island as a new community for mixed income families. One of its craziest futuristic features is its Automated Vacuum Assisted Collections facility (or AVAC) that sucks out its garbage via pneumatic tubes. (consult "Fast Trash" link below the post for more info.)

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
A Tram carriage as viewed from Roosevelt Island

The Roosevelt Island Tram, reopened this time last year after an upgrade, was launched in 1976, replacing the original trolley line that crossed over the bridge. The old trolley ran only part of the way over the Queensboro Bridge, stopping at midpoint to let passengers debark and then take an elevator down to the island. The trolley ended its last journey in 1957.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
View of Manhattan side as seen from Tram. Below is the East River Roundabout by artist Alice Aycock.
See the NYC Parks page on the work for more information.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
machinery that operates the Tram lines

At the time of its construction, the aerial Tram was considered only a temporary solution for moving people back and forth from the island. The subway line had yet to be completed. This novel means of transportation, however, took hold.

For many who live or work on the island in the middle of the East River, the Tram is their usual way of coming and going. For those of us just visiting, the Tram thrills us as an amusement ride, providing uncommon views of New York City and the river. Via the standard Metro Card price of $2.25 for one-way, It's a relatively inexpensive and short thrill.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
FDR Park on Roosevelt Island is now open, and it's a good place for a quiet walk
with uncommon views of the city.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
Roosevelt Island, west shore, looking north, view from Tram

Planners for the City of New York and other institutions continue to rethink Roosevelt Island. Most notably, the city has put out a call to research universities for proposals to build a major new engineering and science campus on the island. (Those proposals are due today, October 28, 2011.) On Wednesday Stanford turned in its proposal for a sustainable campus, one that would house and support the work of 2,000 grad students and 250 faculty members. Cornell University, considered to be Stanford's main competition, is also expected to turn in a proposal. Others schools such as Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, and NYU are looking at other parts of the city.

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
The Renwick Ruins, a former smallpox hospital from 1854,
currently undergoing a stabilization process

While these plans are under review, construction crews are busy building the long planned FDR Memorial. The memorial, located on the island's southern tip just below the Gothic ruin of the old smallpox hospital, is scheduled to be completed sometime late next year.

"Did I understand you rightly," I inquired, "that this musical programme covers the entire twenty-four hours? It seems to on this card, certainly; but who is there to listen to music between say midnight and morning?" 
"Oh, many," Edith replied. "Our people keep all hours; but if the music were provided from midnight to morning for no others, it still would be for the sleepless, the sick, and the dying. All our bedchambers have a telephone attachment at the head of the bed by which any person who may be sleepless can command music at pleasure, of the sort suited to the mood."
- Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy, 1887

___________
See also the earlier posts from June 2008 on this website: The East River & Roosevelt Island: Guide and Map.

For further reading (exterior sites):

Project Gutenberg complete text of Looking Backward, 2000 to 1887 by Edward Bellamy

Sacred Texts complete text of Garden Cities of To-morrow by Ebenezer Howard (1902) 

• See the excellent online exhibit, Fast Trash (http://fasttrash.org/) for an explanation of the AVAC system as well as an informative history of urban planning on Roosevelt Island.

DNAinfo.com Stanford Submits Early Bid for Roosevelt Island Campus (October 26, 2011)

Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (the official governing body)

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Wednesday, October 26, 2011. Made with an iPhone4 and the Steampunk PhotoTada! app. See more pictures in this slideshow on Flickr WOTBA.


View Roosevelt Island in a larger map

From a Trip to Roosevelt Island
View of Queensboro Bridge and southern tip of Roosevelt Island, from the Tram.

Steampunked New York, a series on Walking Off the Big Apple:
Steampunking Union Square
A Steampunk Walk Down Under the Manhattan Bridge
• Visions of the New Metropolis: A Steampunked Ride to Roosevelt Island (this post)

Comments

Wayne said…
A very interesting post. I'd planned to visit the island on a weekend in August but one of the trams broke down and created a major passenger backlog. I decided to leave it until another time.

Looking Backward was like a bible to my Dad.
Teri Tynes said…
Thanks, Wayne. I must say that riding the tram makes the journey a lot easier.
Hi Teri,
I made the trip via the Tram this past June 3. I was only able to spend half an hour on the Island that day, so I'm planning to make a return visit to do more extensive exploring. I have the photos I took that day posted on my Facebook page New York City Photo Album.

Regards,

Jim Ryan
Leslie said…
Excellent post as always. Thanks for always writing interesting posts that capture my imagination!

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