Friday, September 19, 2008

Governors Island: Then and Now

A couple of weekends ago, I finally got it together and managed to take a trip over to Governors Island. I've wanted to do this since I first moved to NYC, but as they say, "the best-laid plans of mice and men/often go awry." If you don't live in New York, or even if you do, you may not be familiar with Governors Island, although its profile has been rising in recent years as it gains popularity. The New York Times just published an article about it, extolling it as, "a place rich with history and surprises." For most of the last two centuries it was home to a military base and owned by the federal government. It was sold to New York for $1 in 2003, and is now a haven for bike riders, picnickers, history buffs, and anyone who just needs to get away from the noise of the city. It's quite small--you can bike around it in about 15 minutes or so, and then you are free to spend the rest of your trip eating your packed lunch, wandering around the eerily uninhabited island, peeking into windows, and jiggling the handles of locked doors. If you haven't been, I would imagine that autumn will be an ideal time to be there, what with all the trees, falling leaves, and sprawling lawns. As the Times article notes, it really does look and feel like you are on the grounds of a New England college campus. I think this photograph by Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times proves that point:

Also, it’s a great place to get a close up view of one of Olafur Eliasson's "New York City Waterfalls" (which, frankly, I think are overrated, but to each her own I guess).

With memories of Governors Island fresh in my mind, I was pleasantly surprised to come across this 1912 missive from the NYCC to US Secretary of War:

I particularly like this line:

"The argument is that there is more wealth concentrated upon the lower end of Manhattan Island than probably anywhere else in the world, and the presence of the regular army at Governor's Island is an enormous protection of these vast property interests against possible riot, insurrection and other troubles."

That sounds like it could be hyperbole, and considering recent news, the current state of the economic power of the US, the falling value of the dollar, etc., I'm not so sure that argument would fly today in terms of an international scope, although certainly there is still an enormous amount of wealth concentrated in downtown Manhattan. On the other hand, in light of the attack on the World Trade Center and other terrorist activities in New York and around the rest of the world, it seems likely that there are people in this day and age who might get behind the NYCC's argument to have the military close by. At any rate, reading that letter reminded me of something I came across a while back. Consider these statistics on banking and money distribution, taken from a page in the NYCC Annual Report for 1909-1910, which provides good evidence for the reasoning behind the above quote:

The disparity between New York City and the rest of the country is quite striking, no? I'm curious about what those statistics would be nowadays, but that's a question I'll save for my reference librarian colleagues.

Anyway . . . that was then, and this is now, and now Governors Island is just a great place to relax on a weekend afternoon. It won't cost you anything to get there--the ferry to the island is free--so the only money you'd spend would be on your picnic lunch. So plan your visit now, New Yorkers, because soon it will be winter and too cold to enjoy it.

Who knows, this could be you:


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