By Ronald Gift Mullins
Driving away from Roosevelt Island on August 1, 2014, after living there for more than 37 years, I thought I’d have more of an emotional reaction, a teary goodbye. But no. It was time to go. My wife, Hattie-Jo, had been ready to depart the place a long time ago.
Back on May 2, 1977, Hattie-Jo and our three daughters (Gretchen 10, Margaret 9 and Lesley 7) had moved from a roomy, two-story house in the New York suburbs to a just-finished, ground-floor, four-bedroom apartment at 580 Main Street, then known as Eastwood. Friends in the town where we had lived for 13 years warned us that New York City was going bankrupt. Basic services would be curtailed or stopped, including police and fire protection. “Prudent people are fleeing New York City, not moving to it,” the chorus of naysayers chanted. However, we had long wanted to live in the city, but had been wary of the school system. Learning that the schools on the Island were rated among the best in the city convinced us to make the move.
As we drove over the Roosevelt Island Bridge for the last time, my mind went back to our first morning after moving in. I had risen early, threaded my way through furniture and piles of boxes, and stretched out on a sofa the movers had left near the glass doors to the patio. After a time, I became aware of a young woman standing outside on the patio. She came toward the door. I rose and opened it. She asked with some urgency, “Can I use your phone?” Wanting to be a good neighbor, I said yes, and had her follow me through the maze to the kitchen where there was a phone installed on the wall. When I picked up the receiver and offered it to her, she asked, matter-of-factly, “Do you know Ted Kennedy’s number?”
Suddenly I had difficulty breathing. A cold chill crept up my back. Time stopped. I slowly hung up the phone. I remembered reading in the promotional material inviting us to come live on Roosevelt Island that there were hospitals on either end of the Island. Perhaps she had walked away from one of them. I said, with controlled urgency, “Maybe you can find the number up on Main Street in a phone booth.” She did not object, and I motioned for her to go back through the living room mess and out to the patio. As I watched her walk toward Main Street, I said to myself, with some trepidation, Welcome to Roosevelt Island.
In a chilling way, this strange, chance encounter on that first morning proved to be an appropriate initiation for the contrast between reality and illusion we lived for the next 37 years.
Bring Us Together
The Island’s master plan had been created in the early 1970s to bring together people of various races, educational achievement, economic levels, the handicapped and ethnicity. They were to be housed in Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood. There was a special section within Eastwood exclusively for the use by seniors and the handicapped. These apartment houses were built under the Mitchell-Lama program, enacted in 1955. This legislation provided a number of financial attractions to encourage developers to invest in constructing rental and cooperative housing for moderate- and middle-income families.
During those early years on the Island, there was a beckoning freshness – an invitation for the few residents here to create a community of heroic humanism and selfless involvement. There was a potent, pervasive spirit among residents suggesting that – with just a little more dedication and civic engagement – we were very close to achieving the elusive Utopia. After all, where could a family of five live in a four-bedroom, 1,550-square-foot apartment, just minutes from Manhattan, for $421 a month, utilities included. The Island provided enough physical isolation to develop a community not influenced by nearby cultures. The connections to get on/off the Island then were the highly visible Tram and the serviceable bridge to Queens. For a while, in the beginning, a guard was stationed in a booth to question those entering Roosevelt Island from the bridge. During the hot summer months, what a relief to get off the Tram and feel the cooling breezes sweeping across the river. The temperature could be close to 10 degrees cooler on the Island in the summer than in Manhattan and, unfortunately, in winter, too.
Optimism persisted in spite of setbacks. It took some craft financing to for New York City to escape bankruptcy. July 13 of 1977 brought a 25-hour blackout, with Black and Hispanic neighborhoods suffering terrible destruction from rioting, looting, and hundreds of fires. My grandmother in Iowa, seeing the riots on TV but having no idea that the neighborhoods where the rioting occurred were miles from Roosevelt Island, called to see if we were still alive. In January 1978, the East River froze nearly solid – something that did not happen again until February, 2015.
As the population increased the Island retained its singular status as an independent, distinct residential community. We were friendly with each other, stopped and chatted with those we knew, smiled at those we didn’t yet know. On the Tram, there were usually one or two people we recognized. Community events were well-attended. The opening day of Little League featured a parade of the many young ballplayers, followed by games in the park north of Eastwood, loudly encouraged by throngs of parents. There was even a men’s softball league, its results dutifully reported in the Island View, the precursor of The WIRE.
We were different, and special. Other New Yorkers expressed envy and curiosity: Was I frightened riding the Tram? Were there stores on the Island? Schools? A post office? Police? It it part of Manhattan? Or Queens? Manhattan!, I retorted self-importantly, citing our 212 area code, 10044 zip code, and Manhattan voting districts.
It was this notion of being “special” that powered the continuing search for the final key that would confirm that Roosevelt Island was exceptional. There was a lack of direct governmental authority over residents in the early days. Each year, the State legislature granted the Island millions of dollars for operating costs. The Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA), incorporated in 1977, arranged community events, and acted as a concerned go-between with the State.
Then, sometime in the mid 1980s, the pride that Island residents felt they had in determining their own destiny began to erode. No one factor could be said to have contributed to the erosion of the feeling of being special, but one contributor was formation of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) in 1984. Now, instead of being governed by an easily distracted agency in far away Albany, RIOC settled in and began to govern, haphazardly as it turned out, with mostly dubious leadership.
Over the next 25 years, the physical appearance of the Island changed drastically. Tall apartment buildings sprouted north and south of the what had become known as the “Old Town.” Some residents were incensed by the loss of open space and attempted to halt the construction via appeals to the courts. But developers don’t commit millions to a project without first checking the germane legal and governmental regulations. Residents lost these fights, and the grand park-like openness of the Island began to disappear.
My wife and I felt that more people would not greatly affect our lives. We thought some fought development selfishly: We are inside the stockade, no more are wanted. Stay away. We thought more consumers would bring more stores and a wider choice of restaurants. Several came, but some of the long-time stores and restaurants had become dilapidated, or gone bankrupt, or just closed. Now, there appears to be a strong effort to upgrade Main Street, but most merchants say they haven’t seen a lot of business from the folks in the new apartments.
When we moved in, the day-to-day management of Eastwood was handled by a management company with staff responsive to our needs – repairs, repainting, and so on. There was a woman, Mary Enright, who was community relations manager. She was strong and engaging, cosmopolitan woman she was. Her job was to publicize Eastwood. She had known Hattie-Jo’s uncle and had danced the light fantastic in New Your City with him and others at the end of Prohibition.
One day Hattie-Jo got a call from Mary that a film crew from Japan was coming to the Island and they wanted to film a typical American family eating lunch. Would we be that family? she asked. When the day arrived, I traveled home all the way from the Wall Street area for lunch – a first. Our daughters came from school and were greeted with warm, happy smiles by mom and dad. Hattie-Jo had made some sandwiches and chicken soup with the last-minute help of Mary. Hattie-Jo’s mother, who lived in Manhattan, arrived with a soup tureen that had been in the family for generations. The director, who addressed me (the Man of the House) with all his comments, had Hattie Jo dutifully serve (Did she incline her head?) as she offered me a bowl of soup, then her mother, who the director had brought to the table to create the impression that older relatives are respected in the U.S. as they are in Japan. We made small talk about school and the weather, all the time staring into a strong light and a bulky camera. In less than a half hour it was over. The Japanese left with a very idealized idea of lunchtime in America. We hurried back to school and job. That night we had a good laugh discussing the lack of realism that had been filmed.
Our personal involvement in the activities on the Island varied wildly. Hattie-Jo was elected to the District 2 Community School Board in 1980. She was and still is the only Island resident elected in a city-wide election. After serving for more than two years she became disillusioned with the entire process and resigned in 1983. She wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Times titled The Community Bored. Her observation of the community school board was that it was a waste of money and provided little instruction that improved education in the schools. Often at the monthly meetings of the board, she wrote, the board members outnumbered the people in the audience. Where were the concerned parents who had been so fired up over having greater participation in the schools that these boards had been created? Mayor Michael Bloomberg finally got the message and abolished them in 2002.
In 2004, Hattie-Jo wrote a book, New York Made Easy, with another Island resident. The book has pertinent information that helps seniors when they visit New York City. It is available on www.Amazon.com.
Since moving to Roosevelt Island, Hattie-Jo had not worked full-time. She did work part time at the Goldwater Hospital’s library for a few years, and earned a Master’s degree from New York University in Journalism in 1988. In 1992 she began teaching English at Bronx Community College. After nearly 22 years, she knew it was time to go and retired officially in January 2014.
I served from 1983 to 1993 as treasurer of the Protestant Parish of the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd on the Island Corporation. The construction of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd had been funded by the Episcopal Church in 1889 as an ecumenical place of worship for those unfortunates who lived on the Island. As the city moved the prisons, asylum and hospitals to other places, the church fell into ruin. When the Island began to be prepared for modern development in the 1970s, the state spent considerable funds to renovate the chapel, naming it a Community Center. The Good Shepherd Corporation had been created by the state to maneuver around the doctrine of separation of church and state. While both denominations contribute to the upkeep of the building, the major share comes from RIOC to maintain the Community Center, even though its prime function is to serve as a place of worship by the Protestant Parish of the Good Shepherd and the Catholic Parish of St. Frances Cabrini.
In 1994, I earned a Master’s of Science from Pace University and joined Hattie-Jo teaching English at Bronx Community College in 2003. My approach to teaching was to compel students to want to write English with fewer errors and greater clarity. They had to write a lot, which meant, of course, lots of papers for me to correct and grade. Using a red ink felt-tip pen, I marked each error, even the space between words if it were too much or not enough. I finally developed a formal, strict approach to teaching English and most students accepted it and began working hard to learn.
Both Hattie-Jo and I have thoroughly enjoyed all the years we wrote articles for The Island View and The Main Street WIRE. The newspaper is the one forum on the Island where anyone can praise or complain about most anything. Its continued publication is imperative to the free exchange of information pertinent to residents of Roosevelt Island.
Crusades for Improvements
One letter I am proud I wrote concerned Motorgate accepting credit cards. For some reason, the garage demanded cash for all persons not parking monthly. This proved to be a hardship for some. One afternoon in 2010 I came into the garage and was ready to pull into my reserved space on the fourth floor near the exit. What did I see but a car parked there. I went to the garage management office and asked how did this happen. The person on duty said a young woman when she had tried to get her car out of the garage, didn’t have enough cash to pay the fee. So she parked in my space and went hunting for some place to get cash. I parked on an upper level. The next day, she was gone. I wrote a letter to The WIRE asking, ”How many more years will it be before Motorgate will accept credit cards as payment for parking by transients?” Within a month, credit cards were accepted.
We have lived through blizzards and hurricanes that hit the Island. The blizzards created hardships with getting around, but did no real damage to the Island or residents. Hurricanes, however, can truly be destructive. In August 2011, Hurricane Irene, with much dire warnings from the media, turned into a flop. Sandy in October 2012 became powerfully destructive as it raced up the East Coast. As it came closer to Roosevelt Island, friends and family from across the U.S. called and emailed: “For God’s sake, save yourselves! Now! Before you’re swept out to sea!” The Island was not in the mandatory evacuation zone, so we stayed. I did brave the force of the rising wind to check on the level of the East River about 25 feet from our ground-floor apartment. The river was at least five feet below the sea wall. I felt we were secure. Electricity went out for a day or so; we had to learn how to exist without TV and lights. But the destruction to downtown Manhattan, Long Island and parts of New Jersey reminded us again of the mighty power of an alienated nature.
When we first moved to Roosevelt Island, we were impressed with how quiet the place was at night. Then, sometime in 2003, we began to hear a loud, continuously rat-tat-tatting noise coming from barges pulled up next to KeySpan’s gigantic Ravenswood electrical generating plant on the East River. Angry calls to KeySpan revealed that the noise came from two engines on the barges. The barges carried heavy, thick fuel oil to burn in the furnaces to produce steam to turn the turbines to create electricity. One engine pumped the thick oil into the furnaces, the other kept the oil warm so it remained liquid. Otherwise, it would turn semi-solid. Apparently quiet natural gas had been used prior to the oil. Letters to the chairman of KeySpan brought polite responses with assurances the matter was being looked into. I suggested mufflers on the engines or buffers. Time passed. I was invited to tour the Ravenswood Plant which I did and certainly understood better how the huge electrical generating plant operated. But one after another, the barges came day and night, the racket continued to disturb the peace of Roosevelt Island. I asked other residents who lived near the east channel of the East River if they were disturbed by the continuous noise from the engines. Most said, “You just have to learn to live with it.” KeySpan did get the message eventually as sometime in 2006, near silence returned, the noise suddenly was no more. Yet, the barges came and went as usual. Success. And I did compliment KeySpan for continuing to be understanding and solving the problem, even though I often used harsh language on the phone and wrote all kinds of insulting letters about KeySpan to government officials.
On April 4, 2005, residents of Eastwood were advised by Jerome Belson Enterprises, which held the mortgage on the Eastwood buildings, that there would be new rent arrangements after the mortgage was paid off. Essentially, Eastwood was being taken out of Mitchell Lama and put up for sale for anyone who wanted to pay the price. When a building is privatized, it loses its tax abatement, the owner generally must refinance the mortgage, and the owner loses the right to a 6% annual return on investment.
Residents hurriedly contributed funds to form a committee to fight for the best deal when the transaction was completed. A lawyer, supposedly one who had been successfully involved in similar deals, was hired. Meetings between the two sides were held. Sketchy reports were given to residents. Finally, at a meeting on August 25, 2005, a presentation was made by the Eastwood Building Committee and the enterprise formed by Belson–North Town Roosevelt Associates, L.P., to handle the negotiations.
At the meeting, the Eastwood committee agreed to the terms set by Roosevelt Associates. The provision that was most offensive was that one- and two- bedroom apartments were “off the table.” They did not have to abide by strict family composition when the new terms went into effect. They did not have to move from a one- or two-bedroom apartment because they did not comply with the number of people required to live in their apartments. Those residents, however, in three- and four- bedroom apartments that did not fully meet the number-of-person qualifications either had to pay market-market rent or, in some cases, 25% above their current rent, or relocate to lesser-sized apartments, or move from Eastwood. Being in the minority, I objected loudly.
The agreement was approved by a hand vote which resulted in an unofficial count of 115 Eastwood residents approving the agreement and 19 disapproving. There were four abstentions. This totaled only 138 votes. There were more than 1,000 residents in the Eastwood complex; 138 did not come close to fulfilling the stipulation in the Tenants Association agreement that it present “the substance of this Agreement to the Tenant body at large and that such presentation was met with overall Tenant approval...” Obviously the agreement was not offered for a vote to the “Tenant body at large,” since only 138 Eastwood residents voted. The agreement should have been declared null and void.
I wrote a letter to The WIRE in which I chastised the Eastwood negotiating committee and the ineffectual lawyer for being less than tough agreeing to the final terms. Frankly, I think Belson would have agreed to most anything to get out of Mitchell Lama. The real estate market was rocketing up and selling Eastwood would bring a tidy profit. I wondered how many of the Eastwood committee lived in one- and two-bedroom apartments and thus would not have to abide by new rental rules. Now that I think of it again, I cannot understand why the committee sat like toads on a wall and allowed Doryne Isley, the new, wily general manager for Eastwood, to cheerlead for the agreement to be approved. Talk about letting the fox into the chicken house!
In 2007, it was reported that Urban American, together with other investors, purchased a number of former Mitchell-Lama buildings for $940 million. Within the package was Eastwood, which Urban American purchased, according to sources, for $189 million. The complex was renamed Roosevelt Landings in 2008, though most older residents still refer to it as Eastwood. Without the economic restrictions mandated by Mitchell-Lama, the makeup of the population in Roosevelt Landings began to change. In what had once been a section devoted to senior-citizen housing, apartments were being refurbished and rented at astounding rates. Other apartments had all-new kitchens installed. Slowly, the Eastwood we had known was morphing into some being that was attempting to be more a Roosevelt Landings, a place with promise.
During 2008, Urban American had electricity meters installed in all apartments. The reason given was that with each apartment paying for just electricity used greater control could be exercised on use, as well as reduce overall pollution from the generation of electricity. When the first bills came in January 2009, the outrage over the size of some of them could be heard all the way to Albany. The rent-offset that was supposed to be near what the electricity cost in most cases did not come close. The sub-metering plan was halted in February by the NY Public Service Commission for 60 days. Further regulations were issued by the commission that Urban American had to comply with before sub-metering could be considered again.
Over the next five years, Urban American installed all new windows and this helped cut down on air getting into the apartments as well as more of the outside noise. It also employed some goofy independent contractors to install new heaters as well as separate thermostats to control heat in each room. As of late 2014, with Urban American paying millions for installation of new equipment, nothing more had been done to have residents pay for their own electricity.
And harking back to driving for the last time over the Roosevelt Island bridge, I have strong feelings of leaving a good chunk of my life behind on Roosevelt Island. After all, 37 years is longer than I or Hattie-Jo have lived anywhere. We have decided to move to Maryland to be nearer our daughters and grandson, and other relatives. The relocation to a less severe climate this winter has certainly proved to be the correct move. We will miss the idea of New York City. When we see scenes from movies or TV shows that offer glimpses of places in the city we had been to or seen, we sometime wish we had stayed a bit longer. But then, our health has been steadily declining for years, and the strength and energy and money it takes to really enjoy the wonders of New York City make us lean back, relax and remember the good times.