Why Not Tell The Truth About Roosevelt Island’s Population?


For years now, there’s been a controversy brewing on Roosevelt Island – one of many. Some say that population numbers reported are inaccurate, that the island is actually home to many more – or many fewer – than what RIOC has long claimed. But why not just tell the truth about it? Is there really any need for all of this secrecy?

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

Roosevelt Island, looking north from the Tram.

“The figures in the 2010 census confirm what we already suspected. Roosevelt Island has changed dramatically, Where once were ruins now stand carefully landscaped apartment buildings. Our subway platforms are more crowded, the crowds on the tram less familiar, the challenge of melding into a unified community more complex.”

David Stone, Reporting on the 2010 Census

Sound familiar?

They do, and what I reported for a newspaper assignment when the last census numbers came out hasn’t changed much. But the 2020 census didn’t show Roosevelt Island’s population flatten. Just almost flattened with a net gain of about 100 residents. The community is now over 11,700.

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But confusion is still fed by misleading claims. For a recent New York Times article falsely claiming that Roosevelt Island “wants tourists,” RIOC’s much-maligned CEO Shelton J. Haynes repeated the discredited 14,000 population nonsense.

Reasons for claiming higher numbers are lost in an unreported past. But the facts are now clear, and as we recognize the 2020 census, truth still matters.

Clearing Up Roosevelt Island’s Population

I got into a little trouble with my editor when I finished my report, a decade ago. Our 2010 numbers – 11,661 – didn’t sit well.

“We’ve been telling people it’s 14,000,” he barked.

Those “people” were advertisers, and the real number meant they weren’t getting what they were promised.

But two things didn’t change Roosevelt Island’s total population nor the false promises. RIOC, may be the originator of the phony figure, even bumped it up to 15,000 briefly in 2018, before we called them out.

But neither the newspaper nor my editor ever published a correction.

So, here goes.

Opinions change, but facts are facts…

I spent more time with our fact checker for that 2010 article than for any other, and that made my report rock solid. She worried because activist Frank Farance was certain to challenge its accuracy.

But he didn’t.

On the Eve of COVID-19, the Black Spring of 2020.

Even our hardest to please critic accepted my figures.

They were simple, really.

Roosevelt Island’s population comes from two census tracts, and we got raw numbers directly from a congressional source. And we got them early with a promise not to tell who slipped them to us ahead of everyone else.

So, you won’t get that name, but you’ll get the facts.

  • Total population in 2010: 11,661
  • Total in households: 9,763 (83.7%). The rest were in group settings, the vast majority, around 2,000, in Goldwater and Coler Hospitals.

Figures for other demographics revealed shifts in how we identify ourselves. Most importantly, our Asian population soared, doubling to over 20%. Many were students, here to study at NYU, Weill Cornell and Fordham Law.

But how many live on Roosevelt Island today?

It’s likely the headcount hasn’t changed much, just shifted, although with the pandemic driving numbers down, we may see smaller final counts.

Since the 2010 census, one new building went up and added residents in Southtown. Another was on the way, but it couldn’t add much in 2020 because the first newcomers were just moving in.

If occupants per household are similar — and they should be — new Southtown building adds around 550 people when filled up.

Cornell Tech opened a residence, The House, for faculty and students. And that adds another 500, but with COVID-19 reducing in-person learning, that residence may come in far short of that.

And any growth from new buildings is wiped out by the closing of Goldwater Hospital. That took away roughly 1,100 Roosevelt Islanders. Coler’s count fell by a few hundred, and there are fewer group homes.

When Southtown #8 at 460 Main fully opened, we were back to 2010 levels with a small uptick of 100: 11,700.

About 11,500 of us making up Roosevelt Island’s population, if we’re lucky. And not much is on the boards to add significantly to that.

My numbers can and should be challenged. They may go up a little. Or down.

But it’s time, in any case to wipe that 14,000 number out of our heads altogether.

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  1. In prior times, I drifted into the debate as to what number accurately (or maybe somewhat fairly) depicts the sum of residents who reside on Roosevelt Island. I have come to believe that the number is like a floating decimal point, it lands where ever one desires. A citizen might settle upon 11000 if to his/her advantage, a developer might like 12000 or so, a business might think and hope for 14000, and on and on. So, the number floats with seemingly no one really knowing — it is mostly what one wants it to be. Of course, we will have a fresh restart when the next census is taken — our then best estimate. Maybe we should have an Island contest to see whose count/desired number is closest to whatever will be the new “official” number. Prizes could be courtesy of _____. Such a contest could be fun.

    • Really, the facts are pretty much established. The only people pushing the 14,000 fiction are those who either have or hope to take advantage of others who buy it. I went through the census data in detail. It made sense. There was wiggle room, up or down, based on occupancy rates, but we’re talking dozens, not hundreds. Worst of all, those pushing the unsupportable high number never told advertisers or businesses investing how much of the real number includes residents in group homes and hospitals with very low incomes and little likelihood of spending. They also avoid talking about the large number of transient students (at least 10%) who also have little discretionary spending. In the end, residents are duped too, thinking that the Island can support several more restaurants as well as a hardware store and so on without subsidy. It’s just deceptive, and anyone reaching far beyond the statistically valid number should be ashamed of exploiting others for profit. It is by no means “mostly what one wants it to be.” The facts are well known. We need to tell Hudson Related and RIOC to cut the crap and square up with residents and potential businesses. As long as the deceptions continue, we will never begin to solve the very real problem.

    • I’m not really sure. Once RIOC/NYS was pressured into getting the deal done, I stepped back, thinking it would go according to plan, but as far as I can tell, it’s now snagged in the bureaucracy. I’ll have to go back and do some digging and let you know.
      Thanks for bring it back to my attention.

    • Susan, I did some quick research and found that the delay is entirely due to a prolonged review on the new Attorney General’s office. Letitia James unit is still reviewing, but approval is still expected soon. There terms will not deviate from the agreement voted for by tenants. It seems the delay is entirely due to the changeover in staff and the standard bureaucratic dithering before getting anything done.

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