Grad Students Question: Future of Community Feeling?

by Laura Russo

The question: "How can Roosevelt Island sustain its sense of community despite current issues facing the Island?"

Those asking: Four graduate students at NYU-Polytechnic.

Forty years ago, the first apartments became available on Roosevelt Island. Their residents, urban pioneers, took a chance on a unique locale, and together cultivated a neighborhood where the concept of “community” was paramount. While it is true that Roosevelt Island’s geography isolates it from Manhattan, the concept of community was illustrated just as strongly by the residents coming together to create thriving arts organizations and to transform rubble into beautiful green space.

Today, these organizations are still in existence, run by residents, for residents – the Garden Club, the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association (RIVAA), and the Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance (MST&DA). The Roosevelt Island Historical Society stands as an example of Islanders working proudly to preserve history.

But, for all this, there is an undercurrent of change on Roosevelt Island. The once thriving arts organizations and nonprofits are at risk because of the recent discontinuation of Public Purpose Funding. Empty storefronts still line Main Street. The building of the Cornell Tech campus moves forward, and residential construction on the Island is increasing.

This leads to that initial question: "How can Roosevelt Island sustain its sense of community despite these issues?" It’s a tough question that’s been explored by the four graduate students at NYU-Polytechnic School of Engineering.

What the group concluded may surprise some residents.

Monica Raffaelli, Ryan Thibeault, Ziyu Meng, and Carlos Augusto Bautista Isaza have spent the last three months exploring the Island and talking to residents, as part of a project inspired by the question, “How might we restore vibrancy in cities and regions facing economic decline?” But instead of looking to fix a community, the group decided to concentrate on what they could learn from a community. They chose Roosevelt Island.

Thibeault had played rugby on the Island and immediately suggested it as a location to study, whereas “Everyone else [in the class] wanted to go to typical New York City communities like Greenpoint and Bushwick,” said Raffaelli.

Isaza said that the group arrived without expectations and thought, Let’s see what happens. He notes that his first impression was that the Island was a really happy neighborhood, and that it would be great to try and replicate the model in other areas. But, he said, “I realized it wasn’t as perfect as I thought it was, there is a lot of expectation here, something big is happening, and I think it’s Cornell.”

Raffaelli thinks, “There are a lot of factors that will effect change. Cornell may be the easiest to blame, but it’s not necessarily a [fair] scapegoat.”

The group spent many Saturdays at the Farmers’ Market in order to speak with residents. They also attended the RIOC Board of Directors meeting on March 26, 2015, in order to get a sense of the community governance.

Raffaelli thinks that the Island has a strange appeal to outsiders. One afternoon at the Farmer’s market, she spoke at length with a vendor whose grandmother was one of the original Island residents. “He had great memories, absolutely nothing negative to say [about the Island]. But he lived in Hoboken,” she said.

Often, visitors were more likely than residents to speak to the group. In trying to engage with residents, the group said they met with a lot of resistance. Thibeault said he wanted residents to know, “It’s okay to speak your mind about your community.” Raffaelli continued by saying, “If you don’t have a voice, you don’t have an outlet.”

Isaza was concerned that there was a lot of talk about “community,” but wondered, “Where is it?” Meng followed his point by saying that of the residents the group did speak with, many talked about Roosevelt Island as an international community, but that she didn’t see it in action. She said, “People comment that [Roosevelt Island] is very multicultural, but I didn’t see that at the Board Meeting.” She wondered, is “living here just a business transaction for some people?”

The group said the most important thing they learned from their investigation is that “no one has all the answers,” said Thibeault, but that “we need to keep up the conversation,” said Raffaelli.

Tags: island history Laura A. Russo Island Life

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