Tram Turns 40

Written by Dana Agmon.

Four generations stood at the foot of the Roosevelt Island Tram this past Tuesday afternoon. The Tram plaza was showing its greenery and beautifully renovated visitors center. Excited children from the PS/IS 217 orchestra were taking their seats and warming their instruments. People were pouring in quickly to the 40th anniversary event conceived by Judy Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS). 
Berdy, with the tremendous help of Lynne Strong-Shinozaki, brought together the past, present, and future of the Island for a remarkable event. They wove a thread from the founding years and original personas of the Tram through the events that took place on it over the years, including the recent wedding of Jenny and Wes Hensen, and on to the youngest members and future bearers of the Island, the students of PS/IS 217. 

In her opening remarks, Judy Berdy recalled her personal love story with the Tram and the Island. “The first night it opened, I lived five blocks away in Manhattan, and took a ride on the ‘Aerial Gondola.’ ” She smiles at the memory, “A few years later I moved to Roosevelt Island.” 

The ceremony was rich with the people who made it everything it is for its 40 years; the pride was palpable as Armando Cordova, current manager of the Tram, was presented with a certificate from the RIHS and called this “fascinating machine an example for the passion for technology.” On its first run, 40 years ago, it certainly was. Amazingly, at its conception the Tram wasn’t intended for such glories. 

In 1972, when the planners of Roosevelt Island realized the subway line would not be ready for use on time, they had to come up with a new solution to allow residents to move easily between the Island and Manhattan across the East River. Roosevelt Island was a car free zone in its early years, making public transportation crucial to its success. 

It was the late Bill Chaffey that first envisioned the idea for an aerial tramway and called on Ted Leibman to execute it. Ted Leibman was the head architect for the Tram project along with Richard Tomasetti, Jerry Maltz, Petr Stand and others. They were all in attendance for the anniversary of their glorious creation 40 years later. 

The aerial tramway was “the first time a tram has been used as part of an urban transportation system,” Maltz told The WIRE with pride. Indeed the Roosevelt Island Tram was the only one of its kind in North America when it opened in 1976. Other urban centers followed, including Los Angeles in 1996, and Portland, Oregon, in 2006. However, the Island’s Tram is the only United States-based aerial tramway that has been listed on endless worldwide top 10 lists and is certainly the most filmed. 

Tomasetti, who served as the head engineer for the Tram, explained that ten different spots along the shoreline of the Island were examined initially. He reminisced, “It was no easy task to conduct the studies and tests for all the possible sites, especially considering the Tram was conceived as a temporary solution.” The Roosevelt Island Development Corporation, the precursor to RIOC (Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation), had not intended for the Tram to be a permanent part of the Island, let alone become its symbol. 

“The success [of the Tram] was not anticipated,” added Tomasetti. Unlike the accidental success of the Tram, the Island community was planned meticulously, say the old-time gang. 
The establishment of Roosevelt Island, Leibman remembers, was to build “a new town in town.” He explains, “It was supposed to be barrier-free, with water access, boast a mini-school system, and develop the identity of a community through providing mixed-income families a reasonable place to come home to.” 

They were proud to be a part of it, but Maltz, Tomasetti, Stand and Leibman scoff sadly. “It didn’t last long,” Leibman admits. “It all changed when Manhattan Park was built,” concedes Maltz. And they are not the only ones who feel that way. 

Roosevelt Island is unique. Susan Rosenthal, the acting CEO of RIOC, says it’s “magical.” Others The WIRE spoke to yesterday used words like “serene”,”enchanted”, and unlike any other place in the world. Sadly, most were also dismayed at the stark difference 40 years has made on the Island’s ideals, beliefs and community. They are worried about its future. 

Sherie Helstein, vice president of the Roosevelt Island Resident Association (RIRA), moved to the Island with her husband in 1989. She first paid $1200 for a one-bedroom in 30 River Road. After 12 years of residence they were informed their rent would go up by 70%. They moved to Eastwood (now Roosevelt Landings) and later to Westview, where they live today in an $1800, 2-bedroom apartment. But they are among a dwindling population of residents who still benefit from the old ideas the Island was built on, such as the Mitchell-Lama program that is being swiftly removed to make room for high-income families to boost the bottom line of private real estate companies. In many ways the Tram is the last standing stronghold of the old Roosevelt Island. 

In his address during the ceremony, Ben Kallos, New York City Democratic City Council member and Roosevelt Island representative, proudly told the crowd of mostly Island residents that the Tram was “the last mode of public transportation to go offline before Hurricane Sandy, and the first to come back online after it.” 

The Tram keeps true to its original mission and idea, as the Island succumbs to privatization. This unintended theme was not lost on most attendees as Berdy gave her tribute to Al Weinstein, a man who fought for the Tram, the Island and its residents. She tells of a man who stood up at every meeting, informing all attending, “Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, the Tram will not cease.” 

In his spirit: 

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen, much like Al Weinstein fought for the Tram, Judy Berdy implored the rest of us to continue that fight for the Island. Berdy said, “The Tram is people. It is Roosevelt Island.” The question now is what do we want Roosevelt Island to be at the Tram’s 50th anniversary?

Photos by Frank Farance.

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