ROOSEVELT ISLAND’S LIGHTHOUSE PARK, FROM THERE TO NOW AND…

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As summer fades into autumn, interest in Lighthouse Park grows while Amanda Matthews’s Girl Puzzle inches toward completion. A lot of people have a lot of questions; so, let’s do a quick review.

By David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

Lighthouse Park: The Way We Were and Won’t Be Again

FIGMENT, June 2019. ©David Stone, Roosevelt Island Daily. A colorful row of giant balls in the space where the Nellie Bly Monument is now being assembled.

Until recently, Lighthouse Park was a gentle afterthought. Everybody loved the place, especially the historic lighthouse, but few went there. On summer holiday weekends, picnickers fired up barbecue pits, and frisbees flew across the meadows. Most of the time, though, it was quiet, peaceful, a retreat.

But then, FIGMENT 2019, a big win for RIOC under Susan Rosenthal, drew a whole new kind of visitor. Eclectic art installations brought international attention and fired imaginations about the future.

A transition was soon underway. Lighthouse Park will never be the same.

Lighthouse Park, a month before FIGMENT 2019, was much as it had been for decades, although work on the perpetually broken footbridges was underway.

Introducing Nellie Bly, Amanda Matthews and The Girl Puzzle

Rosenthal soon championed the idea of a permanent installation in Lighthouse Park that would honor Nellie Bly. Nellie Bly was a convention-smashing journalist who went underground as a patient in the women’s insane asylum on Roosevelt Island. The Octagon’s central tower was part of that institution as photos in the lobby attest.

Her Ten Days in a Mad-House, a book like no other took the world by storm, forcing humanitarian changes in asylums.

Rosenthal organized and took part in a blue-ribbon panel that reviewed artists’ designs. In October, they settled on Amanda Matthews’s The Girl Puzzle as the centerpiece of a redesign for the park and a facelift for the Lighthouse.

It looked like smooth sailing, but multiple troubles lie ahead. In less than a year, three of the four RIOC representatives on the panel, including Rosenthal, were fired, leaving the artwork without a local champion. The remaining member, Erica Spencer-EL, is silent.

More impactful, however, was the coronavirus that soon unsettled the community, city, nation and the world.

The artists’ rendering of The Girl Puzzle as presented in a RIOC hosted workshop where residents participated in discussions over the final park redesign.

A Long Pregnancy in Lighthouse Park

The Girl Puzzle’s long gestation was a byproduct of the coronavirus pandemic.

Not long after she received the award, I talked with Amanda Matthews about her plans for moving forward. It was a gray windy day when I talked with her by cell phone in her Kentucky workshop. By the time warm weather returned, her project should be well underway. Only bureaucratic struggles in getting paid stood in the way.

By January, we planned publishing a Q&A in The Daily.

“RIOC is still defining the scope for Stantec (Developer of the Lighthouse Park redesign) and our contract since the two projects overlap in some ways, so we do not have an official start date yet. The finish date will need to be determined after the start date is determined, since weather is always a factor in installations of this scope,” she wrote in an email.

“We are hoping to iron out these details within the next week or two.”

That was January 18th, 2020. The first coronavirus cases were already creeping into the U.S., and New York City, again, became ground zero.

Where We Are Now

While the overall redesign of Lighthouse Park, including an extension south into an abandoned parking lot, foundered after Rosenthal’s departure, Amanda Matthews’s installation is near completion. Take a look:

Beyond the fence, The Girl Puzzle has its parts all in place, needing only finishing touches. But the historic lighthouse is behind, headless at the moment.

In a September board meeting, RIOC president/CEO Shelton J. Haynes predicted that the project would be finished by the end of this year. With just a couple of months left, that looks challenging, and the expansion south hasn’t even begun.

In what feels much longer than two years, planning has pushed through the pandemic to reach a promising point. All things being equal, we should have an open, but much changed Lighthouse Park welcoming visitors in the spring and summer.

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