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Archive for April 10th, 2010

Roosevelt Island Tram work

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– photo by Mitch Waxman

There are a few things in our neighborhood that I’m paying attention to at the moment. One, of course, is the LIC Millstones story. Another is the Roosevelt Island Tramway project.

Interesting from a few different angles, the project will replace the current system with a modernized tramway designed to operate in a safer and more elegant fashion. As mentioned in the past, your humble narrator is a frequent user of the pedestrian crossing on the Queensboro bridge, and the Tram project literally is just next door.


On March 1, 2010, two months shy of the 34th anniversary of its opening, service on the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tramway will be suspended for six months for extensive modernization and upgrades. Opened in May 1976, the Tram (the first aerial tramway system in the U.S. to be used for urban mass transportation) was projected to have a useful life of 17 years. Installed as a “stop gap” measure, because promised subway service to Roosevelt Island had been delayed by decades, the Tram has served New Yorkers well, currently carrying over 2 million passengers per year.

The once “stop gap” Tram has become an icon of the New York City skyline. Since 2005 Tram service has been integrated with the MTA’s MetroCard system, providing Tram riders with bus and subway transfer privileges enjoyed by other MTA passengers. The Tram modernization, projected to cost up to $25 million, is being funded with $10 million from RIOC and $15 million from New York State.

When modernization work is completed, virtually everything constituting the aerial tramway system will have been replaced except the bases of the three towers that support the cables on which it runs which have been deemed safe by engineers. The tower tops will be replaced to accommodate a wider cable gauge, “dual haul” system, a more advanced cable operating system available as a result of advances made in “ropeway” (as cable-propelled transit systems are known) technology in the 33 plus years since installation of the Roosevelt Island system.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Roosevelt Island Tram is officially a State of New York, rather than City of New York responsibility. Oddly enough, I’ve never ridden on it. Guess I’ll have to wait a few months. Of course, months in New York construction projects always tend to stretch into years, with seeming connection to election cycles.

from wikipedia

The Roosevelt Island Tramway is an aerial tramway in New York City that spans the East River and connects Roosevelt Island to Manhattan. Prior to the completion of the Mississippi Aerial River Transit in May 1984 and the Portland Aerial Tram in December 2006, it was the only commuter aerial tramway in North America. Since March 1, 2010, the tram has been closed for a modernization program that is expected to complete in six months.

Over 26 million passengers have used the tram since it began operation in 1976. Each cabin has a capacity of up to 125 people and makes approximately 115 trips per day. The tram moves at about 16 mph (26 km/h) and travels 3,100 feet (940 m) in 4.5 minutes. At its peak it climbs to 250 feet (76 m) above the East River as it follows its route on the north side of the Queensboro Bridge, providing views of the East Side of midtown Manhattan. Two cabins make the run at fifteen minute intervals from 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. (3:30 a.m. on weekends) and continuously during rush hours. It is one of the few forms of mass transit in New York City not run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but uses that system’s MetroCard.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Terrible inconvenience must be felt on Roosevelt Island, having lost one of its three links with the larger islands that surround it. There is a subway station, of course, which might be the deepest one in the system save for a stop in northern Manhattan.


Native Americans called the island Minnehanak (“a great place to live”), but it has gone under a variety of names in English. The Dutch called it Varkens, or Hog Island. Its first permanent resident was Captain John Manning, a disgraced British naval officer who allowed Fort Amsterdam (on Governor’s Island) to fall to the Dutch in 1673.

Upon Manning’s death the island was passed on to his stepdaughter Mary and her husband, Robert Blackwell, and the island stayed in the Blackwell family till 1823, retaining the name “Blackwell’s Island” for years after that.

Blackwell’s Island became Welfare Island in 1921, and finally, since 1973, Roosevelt Island; a substantial memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt was supposed to occupy the island’s southern tip, but the plans were scotched when architect Louis Kahn passed away. Other accounts have Roosevelt Islanders wanting more open space rather than a memorial.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The guys working on this trapeze act, who I’ve christened “Crazy Bastards” in previous posts on this subject, have obviously overcome any fear of heights. They must be invulnerable to Vertigo.

from Charles Dicken’s “American Notes” Chapter 6 (New York) at

One day, during my stay in New York, I paid a visit to the different public institutions on Long Island, or Rhode Island: I forget which. One of them is a Lunatic Asylum. The building is handsome; and is remarkable for a spacious and elegant staircase. The whole structure is not yet finished, but it is already one of considerable size and extent, and is capable of accommodating a very large number of patients.

I cannot say that I derived much comfort from the inspection of this charity. The different wards might have been cleaner and better ordered; I saw nothing of that salutary system which had impressed me so favourably elsewhere; and everything had a lounging, listless, madhouse air, which was very painful. The moping idiot, cowering down with long dishevelled hair; the gibbering maniac, with his hideous laugh and pointed finger; the vacant eye, the fierce wild face, the gloomy picking of the hands and lips, and munching of the nails: there they were all, without disguise, in naked ugliness and horror. In the dining-room, a bare, dull, dreary place, with nothing for the eye to rest on but the empty walls, a woman was locked up alone. She was bent, they told me, on committing suicide. If anything could have strengthened her in her resolution, it would certainly have been the insupportable monotony of such an existence.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I realize, of course, that they’re wearing safety rigs. Doesn’t change the sweaty palmed anticipation of leaning out over the East River some 200-225 feet up.

from Nellie Bly’s “Ten Days in a Madhouse” at

When we reached the wharf such a mob of people crowded around the wagon that the police were called to put them away, so that we could reach the boat. I was the last of the procession. I was escorted down the plank, the fresh breeze blowing the attendants’ whisky breath into my face until I staggered. I was taken into a dirty cabin, where I found my companions seated on a narrow bench. The small windows were closed, and, with the smell of the filthy room, the air was stifling. At one end of the cabin was a small bunk in such a condition that I had to hold my nose when I went near it. A sick girl was put on it. An old woman, with an enormous bonnet and a dirty basket filled with chunks of bread and bits of scrap meat, completed our company. The door was guarded by two female attendants. One was clad in a dress made of bed-ticking and the other was dressed with some attempt at style. They were coarse, massive women, and expectorated tobacco juice about on the floor in a manner more skillful than charming. One of these fearful creatures seemed to have much faith in the power of the glance on insane people, for, when any one of us would move or go to look out of the high window she would say “Sit down,” and would lower her brows and glare in a way that was simply terrifying. While guarding the door they talked with some men on the outside. They discussed the number of patients and then their own affairs in a manner neither edifying nor refined.

The boat stopped and the old woman and the sick girl were taken off. The rest of us were told to sit still. At the next stop my companions were taken off, one at a time. I was last, and it seemed to require a man and a woman to lead me up the plank to reach the shore. An ambulance was standing there, and in it were the four other patients.

“What is this place?” I asked of the man, who had his fingers sunk into the flesh of my arm.

“Blackwell’s Island, an insane place, where you’ll never get out of.”

With this I was shoved into the ambulance, the springboard was put up, an officer and a mail-carrier jumped on behind, and I was swiftly driven to the Insane Asylum on Blackwell’s Island.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

I’ll keep y’all posted on the subject. Lords and Ladies of Newtown.

Also: Check out this trailer from for Blackwell’s Island, the Alcatraz of the East

Written by Mitch Waxman

April 10, 2010 at 1:00 am

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