The Newtown Pentacle

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Archive for January 24th, 2012

general tension

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Note: I received a few corrections from Judy Berdy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society on this post after it was published, special thanks for her generosity in sharing with us her vast knowledge. Please visit the link above for more on R.I.H.S.

My original statements, when “slashed” will be followed by corrections in red.

As always, when I get something wrong, corrections and additions are welcomed.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Somehow, the Roosevelt Island Bridge has never been examined by this, your Newtown Pentacle.

An omission, but to be fair the tiny span is a bit overshadowed by it’s spectacular neighbors (Queensboro, Triborough, and Hellgate) and half hidden behind a power plant. Not content to leaving her standing at the edge of the ballroom any longer, lets invite her to the dance.


The Roosevelt Island Bridge is a tower drive, vertical lift, movable bridge across the East Channel of the East River between the borough of Queens and Roosevelt Island, New York City. The span length is 418 feet. It was known as the Welfare Island Bridge when it was first opened to traffic in 1955. The bridge is the only means of vehicular access to Roosevelt Island. Prior to construction, the bridge carried two 17-foot lanes of vehicular traffic and a 6-foot sidewalk. The bridge is used by both pedestrians and vehicles with increased volume during rush hours. The Queens approach begins at the intersection of Vernon Boulevard and 36th Avenue.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Blackwell’s Island, later known as Welfare Island, was where you went when they “sent you up the river”.

both a regular commenter and R.I.H.S. disagree with me on “up the river” saying that it indicated Sing Sing prison and the river in question is the Hudson. Alternatively, I’ve got multiple references in the post revolutionary to civil war era that refers to Blackwell’s in this context.  

The New York City government had a well established series of poor houses, prisons, and mental institutions here. Access to the island was strictly by boat until 21 years after the Queensboro bridge was erected in 1909, and an elevator system was built to carry trucks and other motor vehicles from its heights down to the Island in 1930  about 1916.

R.I.H.S. says: The Ferry Operated Until 1957 From 78 St And The FDR Drive.

This proved inadequate.


Initially, access to Welfare Island had been through a series of ferries from Manhattan and Queens. In 1930, a four-cab elevator service began between the lower deck of the Queensboro (59th Street) Bridge and the island. The service, which had served 230,000 cars per year by the early 1950’s, provided the only public connection to Welfare Island.

The increasing traffic needs to and from Welfare Island, as well as growing congestion on the Queensboro Bridge, prompted the New York City Department of Public Works to propose a new vertical-lift crossing between Queens and Welfare Island. After initial resistance from the New York City Council, which doubted that the $6.5 million span would carry enough traffic to justify its cost, construction of the Roosevelt Island Bridge (then named the Welfare Island Bridge) began on March 17, 1952.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Hopelessly overcrowded and causing delays on Mighty Queensboro, the Depression era elevator system needed to be augmented.

Accordingly the City constructed the Welfare Island Bridge in 1955 to provide additional access. The elevator system on Queensboro stuck around for a few more years, but was eventually done away with around 1970.

Construction on the Welfare Island Bridge began in 1951.

from wikipedia

Roosevelt Island, known as Welfare Island from 1921 to 1973, and before that Blackwell’s Island, is a narrow island in the East River of New York City. It lies between the island of Manhattan to its west and the borough of Queens to its east. Running from Manhattan’s East 46th to East 85th streets, it is about two miles (3 km) long, with a maximum width of 800 feet (240 m), and a total area of 147 acres (0.59 km2). The island is part of the Borough of Manhattan (New York County). Together with Mill Rock, Roosevelt Island constitutes Manhattan’s Census Tract 238, which has a land area of 0.279 sq mi (0.72 km2). and had a population of 9,520 in 2000 according to the US Census. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation estimated its population was about 12,000 in 2007.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Well known for excess and abuse, the institutional system on Welfare Island came crashing down in the years following the second world war, and was largely abandoned by the 1960’s, when the Manhattan establishment sought better uses for Welfare Island. There was a “branding” issue to be solved, of course, as “Welfare Island” was synonymous with “Mad House” and or “Prison” for several generations of New Yorkers.

R.I.H.S. says: Blackwell’s Island name was changed to Welfare Island in 1921. Welfare to roosevelt in 1973. The bad reputation came in the late 1800’s to 1920’s thereby changing name to Welfare Island.

In 1973, they decided to call it Roosevelt Island instead.


In 1887 Nellie Bly, one of the first female newspaper writers, and a young reporter who would soon go on to make a career for herself as an investigative journalist and stunt reporter, had herself committed to the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum in New York. Her purpose was to discover what life was like for those who had been deemed insane. She was surprised to discover the depth of mistreatment of the patients. Partially as a result of her reporting, more money was allocated to the asylum and reforms were put into place.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Like the nearby Pulaski Bridge over Newtown Creek, which was erected in the same era, Frederick H. Zurmuhlen of the Dept. of Public Works oversaw the design and construction of the Welfare Island Bridge. One of the unsung men who built the modern city, Zurmuhlen served under three mayors.

The Welfare Island Bridge opened, officially, on May 18, 1955.

from wikipedia

Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation was created by New York State in 1984 to manage development and operations of Roosevelt Island. Before RIOC there existed other state agencies which ran the island’s day-to-day operations such as the Welfare Island Development Corporation and later the Roosevelt Island Development Corporation. The first RIOC Board and President were appointed by the Governor in 1986.

The New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC) operated New York City’s Welfare Island, as Roosevelt Island was previously known, prior to RIOC. Development of the island was based on the principles of urban “new communities” under President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the 1960s and early 1970s, and development of the “new” community there was authorized by the 99-year ground lease and accompanying General Development Plan (GDP) agreed upon by New York City and New York State in 1969. The NY State GDP, which has been amended from time to time, provides for the development of housing, shops and community facilities for a mixed-income, handicap-accessible residential neighborhood.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Of course, over on the Queens coast, the bridge has another overwhelming neighbor, the Ravenswood Power Plant- known to longtime New Yorkers simply as “Big Allis”.

for more on Big Allis check out this Newtown Pentacle posting from June of 2009-

Big Allis is not in the Land of the Lost… or how I learned to stop worrying and love Ravenswood #3

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Welfare Island Bridge, known to modernity as the Roosevelt Island Bridge, has recently undergone a refurbishment and makeover. Much was made of the cosmetic improvements to the span, but the reality of the investment was a determination that in case of a seismic event- which the City of New York is long overdue for- the Bridge would suffer catastrophic damage.

A massive earthquake is one of the unspoken horrors which the City government has been quietly planning for, something which the Mayor’s office would be applauded for were it more widely known. A tip of the hat goes out to the municipal engineers and planners for both their discretion and the secretive work which they have been performing.

A highly technical description of NYC’s earthquake risk factors, prepared in 1998 by the NY State DOT, can be accessed here.

from wikipedia

Big Allis, formally known as Ravenswood No. 3, is a giant electric power generator originally commissioned by Consolidated Edison Company (ConEd) and built by the Allis-Chalmers Corporation in 1965. Currently owned by Transcanada Corp., it is located on 36th Avenue and Vernon Boulevard in western Queens, New York.

During 1963, Allis-Chalmers announced that ConEd had ordered the “world’s first MILLION-KILOWATT unit…big enough to serve 3,000,000 people.” This sheer scale helped the plant become popularly known as “Big Allis”.

At the time of its installation, it was the world’s largest steam energy generating facility. It is located on the Ravenswood site, consisting of Units 1, 2, 3 and 4, as well as several small Gas Turbines (GTs), and an oil depot. The site overall produces about 2,500 MW, or approximately 20% of New York City’s current energy needs. The current installed capacity of Big Allis is around 980 MW.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

The Roosevelt Island Bridge makes landfall on the Long Island at Vernon Avenue and 36th street, incidentally.

Written by Mitch Waxman

January 24, 2012 at 12:15 am

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