I Spent the Day on Bonkers Island!
Plus! Queens Tree poll results!! Pigeon of the Month!!!
Welcome to Issue #50 of CAFÉ ANNE!
As you may recall, last week’s issue included a poll regarding the strangely festooned TREE OF RESPECT my little brother recently discovered in Sunnyside, Queens. The question: should CAFÉ ANNE investigate what’s behind the arboreal oddity?
The results are in: 63% of respondents voted in favor of a thorough investigation. The next time I visit my brother, I will for sure stake out the tree and ask around the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, I’m even more curious about the 37% who voted to let it remain a mystery. What’s the thinking behind that? Please respond in the comments or send a note: email@example.com
In other news, I spent some time on Halloween with Diane McDonald, NYC’s happiest supermarket cashier, profiled in Issue #47. She invited me to sit on her stoop to help distribute candy—a classic mix of Snickers, Starburst, Reese’s and Milky Way.
Diane told me she and her husband Jerry blew $250 on candy, and it was all gone by 6:30 pm—which is crazy! There are too many children in this city.
I didn’t bother with a costume because I am lazy. But Diane and Jerry were all decked out in their finest evening formalwear: Diane even wore a wig!
“We had a couple people thinking she was Nancy Pelosi and I was her husband,” said Jerry. “We didn’t like that.”
And what was the most popular costume this year in Brooklyn for both children and adults? Astronaut! Which I thought was very sweet. Although maybe it just means people want off this planet.
I am very excited for this week’s issue, as usual. We’ve got the return of Pigeon of the Month and a profile of Roosevelt Island—a NYC neighborhood that features the city’s most normal residents and weirdest everything else. Please enjoy.
Pigeon of the Month
Name: Kellyn Shensky
Resides: Williamsburg, Brooklyn
Occupation: Career and Personal Development Strategy Coach
TOP PERSONAL PASSIONS
I am using my unique gift of creativity, and giving to make my living. My business called Illuminations is producing huge mind boggling multiple streams of income. God is surely with me.
Developing my income via Certain Way principles.
Having a lean body.
Traveling first class everywhere I go.
Having perfect friendships.
Enjoying abundant ease and comfort between creative activity.
Enjoying excellent food and wine.
Being a millionaire.
HOW I SPEND MY SUNDAY
First thing I do is make hot, loose-leaf green tea. Coffee makes me pretty jittery. I’ll put a nice metal sachet in a green Ginori mug from Italy that I cherish.
I like to run in McCarren Park. I started running in 2019. I’ve lost 85 pounds. Running gives me time to listen to music or check out podcasts.
By the time I’m out of the park I’m hungry. I was vegan but didn’t think I could give up sushi, which I love. I go to Maki Maki and order three spicy salmon rolls, which I’ll eat there.
I’ll try to catch up on some emails so I can go into the week with a clean slate. I get over 70 email newsletters a month. I’m constantly trying to get off them because it’s too much. Then I subscribe to more.
I’ll have a glass of wine, leading up to my early-evening dinner plan. Yeah, love a chilled wine moment on a Sunday while texting design friends to see if they want to meet up for pizza at Camillo.
I’m asleep at 9, which is my normal bedtime. I put silicone patches on my forehead and around my eyes. And I have silk pillowcases from home. I have a beautiful view of the city. As I lay in bed I look at it until I get sleepy.
“Be the person your dog thinks you are.”
THE NEIGHBORHOOD SPEAKS
I Spent the Day on Bonkers Island!
I’ve written many NYC neighborhood profiles for a number of “real” publications over the years. The genre tends to be pretty formulaic. Aimed at prospective residents, they typically include details about the neighborhood’s demographics, housing and schools. They lean heavily on the perspective of “experts” aka real estate brokers.
I always wanted to write a different kind of neighborhood profile—one based entirely on interviews with random residents found on the street.
I started this series, “The Neighborhood Speaks!” in September with a portrait of Brooklyn’s Clinton Hill. That prompted readers to suggest future subjects—I got several requests for Bushwick. But I was super intrigued when fellow Substack writer—and former New Yorker—Michael Estrin wrote to suggest Roosevelt Island.
Roosevelt Island! It is, yes, an actual island, shaped like a pencil. Two miles long and just a couple blocks wide, it lies in the middle of the East River between Queens and Manhattan. It’s largely residential, but I’ve never met anyone who lives there. And neither has anyone else!
“I had a client who moved there,” my hairdresser told me before I set out to explore. “But she died. I can’t swear that’s what killed her.”
The one thing everyone knows about Roosevelt Island is that you can get there by tram. The red lift runs high over the East River from East 60th Street in Manhattan, providing spectacular views. Tourists love it! When I took the tram to Roosevelt Island last Wednesday morning, everyone, including me, was snapping photos.
From above, Roosevelt Island looks like a high-rise Legoland or a scene from Sim City. Upon landing, I headed north on Main Street, the area’s only thoroughfare, which is lined by nearly identical brick, steel and glass apartment towers. If you love things shaped like cubes (and who doesn’t?) this is the neighborhood for you!
It wasn’t long before I spotted my first victim. Ken Anderson, a speech therapist, was pushing his daughter Sophia on a swing and feeding her Ritz crackers.
“Is is this part of the morning routine?” I asked.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” he said. “There’s multiple parks and this is usually the first one we go to. This is the one that has the best swings. Every morning—first the park and then a walk around the Island. We already got our coffee.”
“Where did you get your coffee”? I asked. I always want to know about the coffee.
“There’s a Starbucks!” said Mr. Anderson. “We are legit. We have a Starbucks. A Starbucks, a Duane Reade and a few restaurants. Not much else. But if you’re a parent it has everything you want.”
Mr. Anderson and his family moved to Roosevelt Island two years ago, from the Upper East Side: “Our lease was up, we wanted more space. We wanted to stay in Manhattan but then we found this place and we have a large apartment with a water view. There’s parks, there’s no traffic. There’s a walkway with no cars that goes all the way around the island.”
“Everybody knows everybody,” he continued. “There’s a mom’s group. I’m a stay-at-home dad, so I’m not invited to the mom’s group, but I should shoutout to the mom’s group: ‘Can you add a dad to your Facebook group? Thank you!’ But it’s very friendly. Everyone looks out for everyone. If someone leaves a toy behind, we know whose toy it is.”
“You really love it here,” I observed.
“We do! It was a little bit of a shock, we were used to the Upper East Side. My wife and I love food, we love restaurants, we like all the activities the city has to offer. And then you move here, it’s very quiet. You have until 8:30, 9:00 and it shuts down…but the librarian knows every kid by name. It’s like one big family.”
“Are there any weirdos here?” I asked.
“There are! We get a few who come over onto the Island. But not like the city. I kind of miss that a little.”
He recalled a character in his former neighborhood who buzzed around wearing nothing but ladies underwear and football greasepaint under his eyes. “There’s nothing like that here,” said Mr. Anderson. “Which is a good thing, but also sad. It’s not as entertaining here.”
“Is it considered part of Manhattan or part of Queens?” I asked.
“It’s part of Manhattan,” he said. “It’s considered part of the Upper East Side. I do know that at one point there was talk of redistricting or something, where I think it was going to be part of Queens. And everyone here was in an uproar over that. We don’t want to be associated with Queens!”
“Are you always conscious of the fact that you’re on an island?” I asked.
“Oh yeah!” he said. “Very much. You definitely get island fever here. You’re stuck in a small space that you can’t get off of easily. Especially when you have a kid. It’s four miles around, two miles from top to bottom. There’s nowhere on the island you haven’t been. If you’re going for a walk, you’re doing the same walk every day. If you have kids—twice a day! There’s nowhere new to go. So you just kind of feel sometimes that you love the island, but get me off this place!”
I continued up Main Street. The area’s apartment buildings are anchored at the street level by the sorts of small businesses you might find at a suburban strip mall. I passed Island Om Yoga, the Fusion Salon, several small grocery stores, a pet supply place, a Chinese fast food joint and a dry cleaner.
I saw posters advertising the Roosevelt Island Older Adult Center, a community pumpkin smash and the “Pawtrait” dog photo and portrait event organized by the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association.
The one whiff of city life—Malick Gaye was smoking outside the new pot dispensary. He said good morning and I stopped to chat.
Mr. Gaye is a plumber and carpenter. He’s originally from Senegal and moved to Roosevelt Island by way of Brooklyn in 2005.
“What brought me here is I was married and my ex-wife’s father is a diplomat, so I ended up moving in with my wife and her parents. And now they move back to Africa. We’re divorced. She went up to Boston. But I still got the apartment,” he said.
Roosevelt Island is an amazing place to live, said Mr. Gaye. He told me two stories he found particularly illustrative.
Once, he left his phone on a bench outside the supermarket. When he got home and realized his phone was gone, he went back to the supermarket to see if someone had turned it in. They had!
Another time, Mr. Gaye fell asleep on a bench and went home, leaving his book bag behind with his passport and wallet.
He returned the next day and the book bag wasn’t on the bench, so he asked the nearby fruit stand man. The fruit stand man had his bag.
“Think about that!” said Mr. Gaye “It touches me, you understand? In Brooklyn, that ain’t happening!”
The neighborhood has its own dedicated security force, he noted. “But it’s so peaceful on Roosevelt island, there’s not much they have to do.”
“How has the neighborhood changed since you moved here?” I said.
“The Citibank left,” he said. “Now there is no bank. And they took away the public swimming pool. Now you have to pay to use the private pools in the neighborhood. Very expensive to get in the swimming pool.”
“Are the rents expensive?”
“I got a two-bedroom, I pay $3400,” said Mr. Gaye. “But the building is clean, it’s beautiful. I lived in South Carolina. I lived in Boston. I lived in Chicago, Illinois. I lived in Brooklyn, NY. I lived in Harlem. I lived upstate, Middletown. I lived in New Windsor. I lived in Newburgh. There’s no place like Roosevelt Island! Boring! Of course it’s boring—because it’s a place where people settle down. Everbody here minds their own business. I never see people beefing on the street here. I love Roosevelt Island.”
“If Roosevelt Island was an animal, what animal would it be?”
“A giraffe!” said Mr. Gaye. “That’s what I would say. The giraffe is tall, can see above everything. When I’m in Roosevelt Island, I can see everything. You should come to my house! Come to my rooftop and stand there. You’re seeing all five boroughs from my rooftop.”
“Manhattan—I go like this,” he said, turning east to demonstrate. “Staten Island!” he faced south. “I go like this—it’s Queens there! I go like this, the Bronx—right there! You understand what I’m saying? There you go! Roosevelt Island!”
I continued my journey to the north end of the island, stopping by the lobby of the Octagon, a luxury apartment building that was famously converted from the infamous Roosevelt Island mental hospital. I asked the concierge if this was where the entrance to the lunatic asylum used to be.
“It still is!” he said.
Circling back south, I made a list of all the things that were conspicuously absent on Roosevelt Island: trash, crazy people yelling to themselves, panhandlers, graffiti and noise. What I did see: stellar views of Manhattan, trees, flowers, old people, moms with strollers, moms with strollers and moms with strollers.
I found Joanne Eichel and Stuart Cochran enjoying lunch (chicken shawarma) at a picnic table by the Episcopal church, one of Island’s few buildings built before the debut of Blondie. Ms. Eichel said she moved here in 1992, Mr. Cochran in 2008. They are retired academics.
“I lived in the West Village,” said Ms. Eichel. “I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I lived in the West Village and ended a marriage and was literally looking for a safe community. And I really couldn't afford Manhattan. So I came here. I love it.”
They knew a lot about the history of the place, it turns out. The whole island used to be owned by a single family, the Blackwells. (The original Blackwell farmhouse, built in 1796, still stands in the middle of the island, looking hilariously out of place.)
“It was called Blackwell’s Island,” said Ms. Eichel. “Then it was ‘Welfare Island’ because it housed all the undesirables from Manhattan.”
“It had the lunatic asylum, so-called,” put in Mr. Cochran. “The smallpox hospital. And there was a prison.”
Sounds like a good time!
By the 1970s, the island was pretty much abandoned. Then the city and state came in and developed it as a subsidized enclave for the middle class. It drew many workers from the nearby U.N., so the apartment buildings are packed with folks from around the world.
“There were plans for this to be, I don’t want to say a utopia, but it was created as a community,” said Mr. Cochran. “There’s no traffic lights. There’s only one major road that runs right down the middle. It was meant to be a community that minimizes the use of cars and maximizes a sense of neighborhood.”
I’d noticed that the only traffic was the occasional delivery van, the Roosevelt Island squad cars and the red bus that gives everyone free rides around the island. While there really wasn’t anywhere to go, it was certainly easy to get there.
When I asked what animal Roosevelt Island would be, Mr. Cochran startled me with his response: “A giraffe!”
But he had a different rationale than Mr. Gaye. “Because it’s graceful,” he explained.
The two encouraged me to check out Four Freedoms Park, the new green space at the south tip of the island, so I off I went.
Along the way, I was surprised to discover that Roosevelt Island has its own little visitors center. Inside, I met Ellen Jacoby, who has helped staff the kiosk for a decade. A Brooklyn native, she first moved here in the 1980s when there were just 5,000 people living on the island.
“Now there’s 15,000 people,” she said. “There’s more apartment buildings. You have a school that goes up to the eighth grade. We have a high school that’s just for special needs. We have a wonderful library, we have wonderful cafes. It’s a wonderful neighborhood!”
“We’re famous for our Halloween parade and Little League parade,” she added.
Ms. Jacoby looked delighted when I asked if the center offered any Roosevelt Island merch. As it happens, you can buy Roosevelt Island teeshirts, Roosevelt Island tote bags and Roosevelt Island mugs. You can buy a tiny model of the Island’s red bus. You can buy sterling silver tram earrings. And then there’s my favorite: a Roosevelt Island “ASYLUM FOR THE INSANE” shot glass.
I could have used a drink for what came next. As I headed further south, things stopped making sense. First came the new Cornell Tech campus, obviously built by billionaires from Mars. Just south of that was a dirt road that had me feeling like I was lost in rural Idaho. South of that was a massive cat sanctuary encircled by a chain-link fence and guarded by a small flock of Canadian geese.
“Anne,” I told myself, “Just keep going, and don’t ask any questions.”
South of that lay the ruins of the old Roosevelt Island Small Pox Hospital. South of that was Four Freedoms Park featuring a vast staircase overlooking the smallpox hospital and a giant head of Franklin Roosevelt—perhaps to balance out the giant head of Nellie Bly anchoring the north tip of the island.
In a flash, I ascertained the essence of Roosevelt Island: The residents keep their lives low-key because everything else about this island is bonkers.
I returned to the neighborhood center in hopes of interviewing one last resident and soon met a nice retired banker. He was sorting his mail on a bench overlooking the Blackwell house.
“I’ll give you my card,” I said, after introducing myself.
“And I’ll give you my junk mail!” he replied.
He remarked that the farmhouse is one of the oldest in New York State. "Like most of us, it’s been remodeled,” he said.
He likes the old house. “It gives the neighborhood some sort of balance,” he says. “It balances out all these damn sky scrapers. Gives us a little bit of the past.”
The banker, who asked me not to use his name, was one of the first residents to move to the island, in 1976.
“It was people like me who wanted to get away from the city,” he said. “People who don’t need much diversity. People who want to live where they’re comfortable.”
I found this statement confusing, as Mr. 1976 also told me that he is half black and half Chinese, and that his Roosevelt Island social life revolves mainly around a crew of neighborhood guys from Serbia and Romania.
Turns out he was referring more to economic diversity: “We have the affordable housing, and there’s some problems with some of the people that have been living there,” he said. “Drinking, loud noise!”
Other problems with Roosevelt Island that various residents had mentioned to me: Too much Canadian goose poop. Moms blocking the bus aisle with strollers. Old ladies asking for cigarettes. It’s a rough district!
I asked Mr. 1976 what animal Roosevelt Island would be.
“I think it would be in the form of a dog,” said the banker. “Because it’s an animal you can train. They’re comfortable. They’re friendly. They’re loyal.”
“You know,” I said, disappointed, “two of your neighbors said giraffe.”
“Really?” he shook his head. “A giraffe! You don’t walk a giraffe!”
Want to suggest a NYC neighborhood to profile? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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