The Rorschach Island

October 12th, 2009 § 2 comments

“The island is one-fifth the size of Central Park, and more than twenty times the size of Bryant Park. It is less than half a mile from Manhattan, and even closer to Brooklyn.”


Governors Island was touted this spring in everything from the nytimes to the new york magazine as the cities newest summer destination—the great “undiscovered” location for all summer activities. After spending a recent Saturday wandering the perimeter and interior of the island, I discovered that it feels much more like a historical ghost town than the most popular location citywide to spend a sunny weekend. The islands history makes it sound like one of those hand-me-downs no one wants to wear and keeps passing onto younger siblings and cousins. This summer the island was finally passed down to the public. Governors Island—where no governor has ever lived—is an extremely odd mix of bits and pieces left behind from the numerous different hands of ownership it has passed through since it was first inhabited in 1613, and while it does not function yet as the urban park it is trying to become, it is aesthetically fascinating because of its oddities.

Walking the parameter, the east side of the island is battered by cold blowing winds, and offers a panoramic view of the Brooklyn shipping yards and industrial areas out across the water. Looking inland the island offers Victorian-styled officers homes, happily painted yellow and built identically in rows, common brick barracks, and what I dubbed “the projects”; a high rise building where the city fire department has practiced controlled fires in the past, enhancing “the projects” present burned out appearance. All are fenced away from the public, and look eerily beautiful the way that all abandoned buildings do. While vacant houses are haunting because of the unknown events that might have happened within them, institutionalized housing reminds me of a lost colony of order, where there is no disguising what something was or how it was used.

gov. island

gov island 2

gov island 3

Rounding the southern tip and walking up the west side of the island, across the bay is a flurry of boat activity going to and from the statute of liberty and Staten Island, while inland the island has been converted into green space. The bottom portion of the island is a designated picnic area, a pretty, grassy location where blue topped military houses used to stand. The red picnic tables are not terribly inviting but scream of something, I am just not sure exactly what. The northern end of the island, where the free ferries to Manhattan and Brooklyn drop their passengers, offers a horribly obnoxious water taxi beach/restaurant/music stage, and amazing views of the Manhattan skyline. The interior of the island is a mess of variety, where little streets named things such as Half Moon and South Craig intersect with art exhibits, an archeological dig, a miniature golf course like none other you’ve ever seen, a few cannons, a prison/castle, a golf course that is no longer a golf course, and a few remaining buildings that allude to how the Coast Guard entertained its residents.

What is most interesting about the island, however, is not necessarily what was left behind by the military or what has been built recently by the island’s planners, but rather the odd combinations the two make. The island should really be proud of how eclectic it feels in almost every way, and if I were inclined to promote it as a destination I might focus on the oddness of the experiences it offers rather than its fire engine red hammocks and paved bike lanes. I’ve never seen Manhattan from the perspective the island offers, never walked through an abandoned Coast Guard base, never climbed down into the empty moat of a castle, or wandered through what remains of an unused golf course. They might not be exceptional experiences, but they are certainly interesting while remaining sort of strangely banal. In the spirit of most new yorkers I now feel I have a vested interest in seeing what becomes of the island over the next few years, as the urban planners have at it and while the public’s interest colors its survival.

gov island 4

gov island 5

gov island 6

§ 2 Responses to The Rorschach Island"

  • occassia says:

    I love these betwixt-and-between kinds of places!

    I should just point out that the island was certainly inhabited prior to 1613… just not by Western European immigrants.

  • a Guzman says:

    Yes it was a great stomping ground!

    True true, apparently the European settler bought it from the natives for a string of beads…sort of similar to how new york city bought it from the government for a dollar.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What's this?

You are currently reading The Rorschach Island at Escaping Artist.