What are we now, Roosevelt Island?


What are we now, Roosevelt Island? Through the lens of Covid-19, the question takes shape. When normal is stripped back to essentials, who and what are we?

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

By David Stone

Roosevelt Island Daily News

Change this fast is never expected. You can’t plan for it.

It comes out of the blue, but two months deep into the coronavirus crisis, what have we learned about ourselves, and our community?

Limited to walks on promenades and in our parks, conversations from six-plus feet away, through masks, we see our neighbors differently.

Morning Routine, Roosevelt Island/ ©Deborah Julian, Fine Art Photograph Print ($27.99)

A community gives up flourishes and finishing touches, revealing simple foundations and clarity.

What’s changed as we get farther along?

It’s impressive. Coherent. A good number of us isolated for weeks, but among those who haven’t, the mood is surprisingly pleasant.

And helpful. A hearty band scrambles, day after day, distributing food to homebound and/or impoverished Islanders. Free meals pour in from the city as well as nonprofits.

Cornell Tech students volunteer technical support and even companionship just for the good of it.

But there’s also the occasional sour note. One small group spearheads attacks on Coler Hospital and its staff, assisting the New York Post, among others, with unproven accusations.

Yet, that’s by far the exception. Just this month, first responders organized a vigorous salute to Coler.

What are we now? Maybe a “tight-knit community,” after all, or maybe the coronavirus reshaped us into one.

But maybe not.

After breaching the temporary fence, three groups decided soccer was more important than honoring the safety of their neighbors.

Neighbors, unknown until this week, exchange nods, passing on the West Promenade. We really are in this together, they imply.

Yet now, as we get into reopening’s initial phase, we may be forgetting that original commitment and purpose. Except for the bars, across the East River, wearing face masks and distancing is far more common than on Roosevelt Island.

Even more assuring are red bus rhythms, our unique timepieces, the Tram, general upkeep and landscaping. RIOC quietly keeps things near normal, but they could easily have abandoned all of it.

RIOC’s Red Bus fleet, drivers at risk of infection, continue the rhythm of community support.

RIOC By the Numbers

RIOC is not Roosevelt Island‘s backbone, but the state agency maintains it. During the coronavirus crisis, their commitment came at a price. Two public safety officers died from Covid-19.

While Red Bus drivers are most visible, “We have approximately 80 staff” actively working, RIOC public information officer Terrence McCauley told us in March.

But RIOC’s slipping too, especially the nearly invisible Public Safety Department. Two weeks ago, we asked RIOC to think about growing bike hazards on the promenades. Nothing was done, and here’s what we see now…

Reopening restaurants, while welcome, emphasize shortcomings of our ultra passive PSD. Here, one of a regular stream of illegal electronic bikes cruises up the West Promenade. It was preceded by an equally illegal electronic scooter.

That’s public safety officers, groundskeepers, building maintenance and more.  

Others prove more versatile.

Some staffers are “now being utilized as Call Center reps for the State’s COVID-19 hotline,” said RIOC vice president Shelton Haynes.

What are we now, Roosevelt Island…? Community Support

Quietly, behind the scenes…

Thank you to all of the Roosevelt Island residents who decided to do a great deed for RIOC’s front line personnel. Over the past several days, several of you decided to put your sewing skills to work to ensure that our Public Safety Officers, Bus Drivers, Grounds Keepers and Maintenance staff have masks despite the shortage of equipment they face. We’ll be sure to feature our personnel wearing the masks in future updates, but for now, thank you to Karen Laurence, Chistina Delfico, Kristi Towey, Margie Smith, Lisa Fernandez and Judy Berdy.

Terrence McCauley, RIOC Public Information Officer

Roosevelt Islanders “make some noise…”

Led by Karine Wong, Roosevelt Islanders defy isolation every evening at 8:00, opening their windows and stepping onto balconies to “Make some noise,” clanging and banging to thank frontline healthcare workers.

None forgotten.

That noise comes from pots and pans and whatever else you can smack together.

Adding a gentle note, some have introduced music, just prior. Recently, a violin played a piece from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

Conclusion: What are we now, Roosevelt Island?

No one knows how long this crisis will last, but it will not end soon.

Occasional good news shines through the flood of illness and death, but what surprises is our resilience.

Roosevelt Island’s foundation is sound, and that resilience gives it strength.

Only a few get mentioned here because all the names, the building concierges, the managers showing up, the men and women cleaning and repairing our complexes… the postal workers… delivery drivers and even movers… are too numerous to list.

Nisi, Wholesome Factory, Foodtown, the café @ Cornell Tech… they open up, every day. Recently, Subway, Starbucks, Liukoushui Hot Pot and Piccolo Trattoria returned too.

But each serves us without much to gain. Actually, it’s certain some are losing money.

With distancing in place, plus other measures, Foodtown, Bread & Butter Market and Wholesome Factory overcame supply chain trouble with groceries.

Need a prescription? Duane Reade’s there. Even Island Dry Cleaners stayed open, but so did Island Wine.

And finally…

“This too shall pass,” as a Persian jester once advised his master. A phrase for times either good or bad, maintaining balance, keeping perspective.

One day, we will have more people than we can count to thank for where Roosevelt Island is now and will be as a community.


  1. The East promenade of the Island, especially from the Meditation Steps to the Octagon is very crowded. There are lots of bikes and e-bikes and scooters going by pretty fast and endangering pedestrians, especially elderly ones. Don’t we have some rules to contain the bike and scooter explosion? Why does PSD do nothing about this?

    • You have my full agreement. As I understand it, motorized vehicles are not allowed on the promenades. That said, any law or rule is useless when there is no enforcement. I intend to ask Shelton Haynes today about this. Let you now.

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