Thingish Things

Roosevelt Island Spring

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Jun• 30•11

If you have ever been to Roosevelt Island – that sliver of land parked in the East River between Manhattan and Queens – it is likely that one word immediately came to mind: Government.

Roosevelt Island is the Brazil City of New York. It was government planned and government executed.  Its buildings are concrete slabs.  Its streets, sidewalks, and outdoor furniture are government utilitarian.  Plain drab sensible gray, with an occasional brown patch.

Sprinkled throughout the island are signs of what could have been – a beautiful 19th Century Dutch church, sprawling green fields, ancient and interesting hospital ruins – the only specks of variety on an island in tragic need of it.  But there is one significant exception.   Everywhere – everywhere – are knee-bending views of mighty and towering midtown Manhattan.  Only government could have made Roosevelt Island ugly.

I worked for an elected official who represented the island many years ago, so I spent a fair amount of time there.  My job was to appease island residents who had become umbillically reliant on government services.  In an entitled way.   They didn’t request.  They demanded. (Although some were quite nice, especially the large disabled population.)

Roosevelt Island was built as a middle-class community.  And it largely is.  Apartments are tightly regulated and the layers of bureaucracy to get anything done are stifling.  That is one of the reasons why,  I suppose, residents have gotten used to haranguing elected officials for every little thing. Government is the landlord, the cruelest punishment for an artificially affordable place to live.

Roosevelt Island is run by Big Brother, the largely despised Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, or RIOC as it is commonly known.  RIOC members used to be appointed by Albany, but in recent years, island residents have democratically elected their own to the board.

The New York Times today reports on fierce protests on the island aimed at Governor Andrew Cuomo whose administration has reasserted state control over RIOC board appointments.  There is to be no Arab Spring on Main Street, Roosevelt Island.

What I find most interesting about this story is that Roosevelt Island residents – in a very Republican way – are yearning for local control after accepting decades of centralized largesse from Albany.  I can’t blame them.  I would, too.  But can they have it both ways?  Didn’t they cast their lots with government years ago?

And there  in Albany, Governor Cuomo must be feeling very King George III.  Ungrateful colonists.


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  1. Sherie Helstien says:

    Dear Mr. O’Reilly:
    You have some of the information correct and some not quite so. Yes, this City property was leased to the State to develop it in a 99 year lease, good ’til 2068. There are three Mitchell-Lama buildings, one a co-op and the other two middle-income rentals have been trying to come out of this system with the tenants having control of them. It has been a tremendously difficult undertaking and for this response it’s not necessary to go into the details. However, what is important for you and others to understand is that this isn’t the only place where this kind of housing exists in the City. There are City and State run Mitchell-Lamas all over the City and State, and to make this so specific to RI is not only unfair it is downright wrong. The fourth building of the original WIRE buildings is Eastwood, now known as Roosevelt Landings. It was also a mixed income building. It also had a special set of apartments in what we call the Senior building, known by its address, 546. It was recently bought out and has basically become market rate housing. AS our seniors either die or move out, that important population will disappear as part of the fabric of this very socially active community. A sad passing.

    My husband, Matt Katz and I have lived here for 22 years and we’re often called newcomers, as we moved into the just opening Manhattan Park complex. We now live in Westview, one of the M-L buildings, after MP raised our rent by 70%–and that is no joke nor exaggeration. We were lucky to get an apartment in Westview.

    In any case we have been very much a part of the community and extremely active in trying to get the legislation changed that created RIOC so that the residents here have a say in our local government. That is neither Republican or Democratic politics. It is something you might be familiar with, since it’s the mainstay of your verbiage: democracy. That is, we want to elect the members of the Board that oversees the operating corporation that runs the joint, on a day-to-day basis. We were given that opportunity by Governors Spitzer and Paterson. Ironically, it was Governor Pataki who created legislation, after a small contingent representing this community’s desire to have a say, met with the Governor himself, that, while it opened up our parkland for development (see: The Octagon), it also REQUIRED that a majority of residents be seated as board members! So, again, it is neither republican nor democratic politics, it is, say it again: democracy.

    What we have learned is that a Public Benefit Corporation, which is what RIOC is, runs things like the MTA, the Eerie Canal and other non-people oriented things. But a PBC is terrible for a community. Roosevelt Island is living proof of that.

    We have been treated by many as whining, ungrateful children. We are not. We are citizens of the City and STATE. We pay City and STATE taxes. When Pataki arrived at the Governor’s mansion the first thing he did, trying to feign balancing the budget was to remove our measly $2.6M operating budget from the State. We have no industry here. We have no way of “making” money here, other than with the real estate interests who have run roughshod over this community. Other communities need only ask through their ELECTED representatives, for state aid for their communities. We get zip. It is, in fact, a case of “taxation without representation”. RIOC appointees respond only to the Governor, and in the past when our elected state pols offered money to RIOC for, say roof repairs of our historic Chapel of the Good Shepherd, the then RIOC president, Al D’Amato’s “bagman”, Jerry Blue, wouldn’t accept the (state) money, ’cause our Assemblyman Pete Grannis was a democrat! And the chapel fell into terrible disrepair. That was Pataki’s first hideous appointee.

    About the “government designed structures”, they were designed by world-class architects. Do you even know who they are? Do the names Philip Johnson and Philip Burgee ring a bell? Yes, they’re not the most attractive design ever–but the state was putting up housing that would get working class and middle class folks back into the City. Mixing ethnic and income groups is a good idea. Then everyone has a stake in the community. That was the point of creating this housing. Roosevelt Island was built with as a “planned community”. The original folks who moved here, created a theater for adults at first, following with classes and performances for children to participate in, a historical society, and a library, first housed in someone’s apartment, and later expanded to a storefront, and now a part of the NYPL! Our organizations have lasted and grown into established institutions today. And we have added a visual arts gallery, with art work displayed by many talented folks who live here. We have two world-class presenters of a wide variety of musical entertainment from classical to Latin, to jazz, with musicians who come from many outside venues to play here FOR FREE! And we have a wide variety of real musical talent living in the community. We are a very vibrant community.

    And yes, we want, no we DEMAND, our right to representative government in our little community. We are really a village, with a population of 12,500 people. When the last three South Town buildings are finally build we will be near the planned population of approximately 15,000 to 16,000 people.

    We have suffered under four terrible administrations at RIOC, under King George Pataki’s reign. His first head of RIOC fomented reverse racism…that was really pleasant. His second appointee, Rob Ryan, his campaign manager, came to several meetings drunk and abusive, and was finally walked out in handcuffs, by our private “policing” force, Public Safety. Later came the infamous Herb Berman, a Bklyn. democrat, formerly a member of the City Council, who got his constituents to support Pataki. Herb managed to supply the Island with special garbage cans, 40 of them at $2000 a clip! $80K down the rabbit hole. We looked on line for the most expensive garbage cans one could buy and not one came close to that price! Someone’s brother did well.

    We want control of this corporation because the money it gets comes from the ground rents FROM OUR BUILDINGS! That means it comes from the rents we pay to our current landlords. That means we’re paying for the functioning of this community’s “government” and if we’re paying we must have a say in how it runs.

    Sal Ferrera is a nice guy. But he DOESN’T LIVE HERE. He lives in Brooklyn and his state Senator interfered in another State Senator’s district without so much as “may I please”. Ferrera’s appointment was underhanded, and deceitful. He went to Dean Skelos and got the appointment done. Sal wants, on behalf of the special needs school he runs as Executive Director, lots of real estate here, and now he sits on the board that decides. The board member just removed, was elected by this community. Jon Kalkin has worked tirelessly for all of us. He was in the middle of several very delicate projects, one of which involves the negotiation of the two M-L buildings with the owners, tenants, DHCR, ESDC and other State agencies who must all sign off on the deals before we can finally own and get much needed repairs done in these neglected buildings. His removal occurred the day after his term expired. However, there is a board member, who much like yourself, applauds and cheers loudly for democracy, but declined to run for his seat when we held our past two elections. It’s good idea, but for everyone else. David Kraut has sat on the Board since Mario Cuomo put him there and that is because he votes lock-step with however the Second Floor tells him to.

    This is a complicated and complex situation and even many Roosevelt Islanders still don’t understand how this place functions or where the power comes from. But many of us do and we’re angry and tired of being treated like a colony, and that is what we are. And yes, tea has been thrown into the East River. We want what you and every New Yorker take for granted, sir. We want what you belittle us for that you already have. Shame on you and all the New Yorkers out there who dare to make fun of us. We’re taxpaying citizens and we’re not your children. If you’re not interested in helping us, get out of the way.

    Any questions? Do you care to be educated?
    Matthew Katz, President, Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA): 212-935-7534
    Dick Lutz, Editor, The Main Street WIRE: 917-617-0449/

    Very sincerely,
    Sherie Helstien
    Secretary of RIRA
    Member, Maple Tree Group (MTG) working for democratic representation for Roosevelt Island

  2. Joyce Mincheff says:

    Our forefathers killed for democracy. We’re only shouting. Yet we’re characterized as “spoiled”.

    NY City leased Roosevelt Island to NY State. The municipal services provided from the city, and many of the laws and controls, such as zoning, transportation, policing, are indiginous solely to Roosevelt Island and are administered by a Public Benefit Corp. known as RIOC.

    Gov. George Pataki withdrew all state funds from Roosevelt Island’s budget many years ago, and that budget line has never been restored. We’re tax-paying citizens here. Our money goes to the state, nothing comes back, and local law does not apply here.

    The State withdrew funds prior to the Island being self-sufficient so we had to scream and holler to get the state to provide basic services. Their governor-appointed Public Benefit Corp, (RIOC)They gave away land leases to developers for ridiculously low rates. That land and its income are the means to create self-sufficiency for the Island that only they controlled.

    None-the-less, the Island has limped along, with all of its operating capital generated by Island activities, and none of it coming from state tax revenues.

    In areas of the state where local law does not apply, communities can incorporate to become villages and implement elected representation by residents to administer local government. Roosevelt Island’s administration is entirely controlled by the state, and Cuomo’s shift back to “appointments” to direct the board removes the only vestige of democracy we had.

    Fortunately, no one has to take to the streets with canons in this modern day, domestic fight for democracy. But our resolve to live in a democracy is no less sincere than the resolve of our forefathers. If you haven’t lived without democracy it may look silly to you, but it is your most fundamental right as a US citizen. It is opressive for the State of NY to enforce any form of government that’s not consistent with that of a republic on any state resident.

    Public Benefit Corp. is a construct of government to mange assets. It is not a form of government.

    Throughout the United States, citizens are entitled to government of the people, by the people and for the people. No less so on Roosevelt Island.

  3. Bill O'Reilly says:

    Dear Ms. Helstien,

    Thank you for the edification. I knew many of those details way back when — before you and your husband moved to the island — but I appreciate the refresher.

    I tend to write about irony, and I do see irony in what is going on. Please be assured, nonetheless, that I am rooting for your cause from afar. Local governance is central to my beliefs as a Republican. I would grant you statehood if you wanted it.

    Best of luck in all your endeavors,

    Bill O’Reilly

    P.S. I am well aware that Phillip Glass and other renown architects designed housing on the island. I was fortunate enough to have worked peripherally with a couple of them over the years. But utilitarian is utilitarian, regardless of who drew the plans. (Even Michelangelo did plain Jane once in a while.) I’m sure the homes within those drab brown walls are colorful and lovely.

  4. Ahmed Darwish says:

    Dear Mr. O’Reilly:
    I owe it to you and to the reader to correct another fact you missed through your statement that “There is to be no Arab Spring on Main Street, Roosevelt Island.”
    What ever reason you added that line for; I would only assume that you need an update.
    There are over 200 families; Arab and non-Arab Muslims have been living on the Island, and relax they don’t byte.
    Arab Muslim families were in the rally fighting for democracy by the Governor’s office. As you may have heard and saw in the news that the Middle East is awakening from the dark slumber and wants to be free from the unjustified long corrupted system ruled by greed and WMDs called ignorance. The same greed that we see here, you may choose to name it, but it is still the same greed, where the best interest of the people is only mentioned in the constitution.
    If no one screams for justice, then corruption becomes the norm.
    That explains why the Governor speaks so sparkly only in Albany. Yes, Mr. O’Reilly, Arabs know Democracy. In fact, we know which one works and which one doesn’t, because we suffered the symptoms of absolute corruption caused by bad democracy.

    Thank you and hope this will be at value to your archives.

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