An island for recreation in line with Robert Moses' vision
A few months ago, on one of those rare, but unseasonably warm days in the crux of winter, a couple of friends and I decided that we were in the mood for a round of mini-golf after a standard, Saturday brunch. Much to our dismay, mini-golf is not an easy activity to plan in New York City, much less in the middle of winter. Luckily, Randall’s Island came to the rescue. Thirty-six holes of mini golf for seven bucks- and there were batting cages- what a deal.
The trek onto Randall’s Island was an elaborate one. After crossing the footbridge that extends from upper Manhattan, we were met by an expanse of soccer fields and other random green expanses of parkland. From here, we were instructed to follow the bike path that curved along the water’s edge for what seemed like forever.
Strolling along this path, we first passed the remnants of horse stables belonging to a riding camp. Next, we were met with a humongous and off-putting construction that resembled a prison. Towering, electrified fences were set around several large, homogenous-looking, gray stone buildings. This scene went on for a good portion of our walk, and much of our conversation revolved around what these monstrous, ugly buildings were. We settled upon the idea that it was, in fact, a prison. (The verdict is still out on what these buildings officially are).
Next, we crossed some marshlands and a barren parking lot, where it would appear that every disposed of Christmas tree in Manhattan had been exiled to. Then, there was the expensive looking track and field arena behind the lot, and then finally, we came to the mini-golf area. Sandy had clearly done some serious damage to the course- the tree limbs across the green proved to be viable obstacles. Yet all in all, it was a lovely reprieve from the city, and it was nice to know that there was such an escape nestled so close to Manhattan. What I did not realize until today, however, was that Randall’s Island’s inclination for recreation was Robert Moses’ doing.
Robert Moses’ impact upon the landscape of New York is undeniable. Everywhere one looks there are vestiges of this Master Builder’s tirade upon the city. While his legacy is questioned, the sheer magnitude of his work is not. And as I learned today, while scrolling through a list of Moses’ handiwork, his efforts extend over to Randall’s Island, as well. With this new knowledge in mind, I delved a bit deeper into what Robert Moses’ connection with Randall’s Island was. What of today’s island did the Master Builder initially create?
I soon discovered that after Moses was appointed commissioner of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation in 1934, he proposed a plan for Randall’s island to be developed into a sports complex. The children’s hospital that had previously been on the island had recently been demolished, leaving the island free for usage. Robert’s plan was never fully carried out; nevertheless, over the next three decades, much of the island was converted into fields, parkland, and other areas for recreation. The most notable creation was Triborough Stadium, which was demolished in 2002 to be replaced by Icahn Stadium (the track and field venue that I passed by). Also nestled within the island was Robert Moses’ office, as well as the Triborough Bridge Authority headquarters.
The island I was familiar with, however, was apart of an initiative that had its beginnings in 1992. That year, the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation, now called the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA), was formed. While RIPA’s biggest accomplishment was Icahn Stadium, the alliance is also responsible for a project launched in 2007. This $130 million initiative sought to fully transform the island into the recreational oasis that Moses once dreamt of. On the 480-acre island, 60 athletic fields and a waterfront promenade were constructed. Additionally, landscape restoration, which involved the planting of 4,000 trees, as well as the restoration of a freshwater wetland and a salt marsh, among other things, was also carried out. The golf center I was familiar with, renovated in 2008, was RIPA’s doing, too, and similarly, a tennis complex was completed in 2009.
I love the idea of Moses’ island oasis. While I am generally not a fan of his work, his intentions to create a sprawling, usable green space for New Yorkers is admirable. However, from what I saw of the island, even with the major improvements carried out in recent years, Randall’s Island is a bit of a failure. While I did visit the island in the dead of winter, and certainly didn’t explore everything the land has to offer, I still feel that the place is a bit of a dud. Not only is getting there on foot an overwhelming trek, but the scattered reprieves of green and the charming shoreline pathway views do not make up for the numerous dull buildings, or the Triborough Bridge cutting over the island and creating obnoxious traffic noise. So, it is my definite opinion that before Randall’s Island can be considered a successful public space with a sense of place, a lot more work must be done.