Main Street in Distress Now With a Few Sprinkles of Light

Good Shepherd Plaza, the urban version of a town square, is instead a dreary, unmaintained place between farmers markets in summer. But although it sits alongside an historically important church, flanked by the pioneering WIRE buildings, not a single sign exists. No visitor drawn to the Main Street Canyon would know that the plaza and its structures matter. This is RIOC negligence at its worst.

In American life, Main Street is as much icon as fact, a symbol representing our shared values and interests. But on Roosevelt Island, it’s even more so because Main is our only street, and everyone lives on it. Its deterioration in recent years runs against the reality of life here. Even in this vibrant, growing community, signs of light struggle to break through.

by David Stone

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

It’s small but Dear Leader Garden greets President/CEO Shelton Haynes when he rushes between his gas guzzler and Blackwell House where he holes up on the second floor. The takeaway? RIOC knows how to do things very well when it wishes.

Contrasts do as much in telling stories as do the facts revealed. Good Shepherd Plaza always, by design, marked the center of town, a communal space where Roosevelt Islanders gathered for protests, parties, solemn observations and community events like Roosevelt Island Day.

But not only has the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) failed with upkeep, it moved the parties south to the Rivercross Lawn. The state agency’s shabby, although unmarked, offices lay directly across the street from Good Shepherd Plaza.

In a colossal blunder, RIOC invested tens of thousands in a shadeless plaza nobody uses. It replaced an outdated playground with a useless investment in concrete.

For contrast, though, we look a hundred feet south to where RIOC’s Chief Executive Shelton J. Haynes hides in historic Blackwell House. Residents poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into rehabilitating the historic 18th Century farmhouse without being told that the ultra-secretive Haynes would hole up there.

Blackwell House’s grounds are immaculate, although not a single sign suggests that visitors are welcome or tells them when it’s open. Between that and the New York State Shelton J. Haynes Parking Area is the lovely, floral Dear Leader Garden brightening the route he must rush through to avoid Roosevelt Islanders on his way to and from work.

At the RI Dry Cleaners, in a scramble to survive, owners added new offerings. They repair shoes and cut keys now. But the sign is misleading They don’t do their primary work – dry cleaning – “on premises.” At least not on their premises. When they were unable to afford a modern system required under new laws, they started outsourcing last year.

Nearby, the goofball New York State Kevin Brown Fire Hydrant Blockade signals a community overseen by fools.

Engineered specifically and defended firmly by PSD Chief Kevin Brown, the embarrassing obstacle we’ve named after him is so stupid it’s exotic. An unsightly barrier was put up, blocking access to a vital fire hydrant, to prevent vehicles from… blocking access to the same fire hydrant? Because no other hydrant Island-wide is so honored, the obstacle raises questions about targeting Bread & Butter Market, a Muslim-owned business.

As you can see from the above photo, the Kevin Brown Fire Hydrant Blockade creates additional hazards, forcing double-parking that sends all traffic into a single lane. While adding absolutely nothing to the safety and security of Roosevelt Islanders.

It’s a Main Street blemish all its own, one you’re not likely to see anywhere else on the face of the Earth.

The Importance of Main Street in a Small Community

Main Street is the social, economic and cultural spine of any small community. Here, it’s our only street. It’s also the street that tourists see when they visit Roosevelt Island from the Tram or the F Train.

With a little effort, RIOC could make it an inviting gateway. Instead, they’ve let it lapse into an unappealing detour. Red Buses rattle and shake through the Main Street Canyon, stressing the deterioration.

In a move that left a big gap on Main Street, RIOC ditched the site they’d used rent-free for decades, exchanging it for inadequate space down the street last summer.

The Roosevelt Island Historical Society (RIHS) is one of the groups working to change that. “We want to make Main Street a place people want to come to,” says President Judy Berdy. “If RIOC would clean up their properties, it would have a huge impact.”

The Main Street Canyon

Surrounding the intermission of Good Shepherd Plaza is what’s known to locals as the Main Street Canyon. Brutalist in design, unadorned buildings crowd against the sidewalks with sparse green space and little sunlight.

The tone-deaf move of RIOC’s offices made the heart of Main Street much worse. Frosted glass hides the work or lack thereof inside, and there is no sign identifying the state agency. On the day they moved in, there was no rear door or emergency exit. The space has only a single, shared bathroom. The capacity is so inadequate, RIOC was forced to convert rehearsal areas in the Cultural Center into storage.

But brutalist architecture, especially on Roosevelt Island, comes with virtues you won’t notice right away. The gift of brutalism is its focus on what’s inside, not exterior decoration.

All four of the original buildings feature well-architected, roomy spaces meeting all sorts of residential needs. They don’t just come close to the treasured Manhattan ideal of “pre-war” spaciousness, they exceed it. And with spectacular cityscape views to go with it.

A nameless head shop filled up the storefront most recently in use for Bubble Tea. A likely increase in the marijuana stink is on the horizon for Main Street.

This emphasizes the failure of RIOC in making street life vibrant. As one long-term resident recently wrote, it looks like it “needs a power wash.” Planters have been left to dirt, and the iconic Z-bricks are disappearing as the state accommodates cars over people.

Main Street Retail

A key quality of life issue has been the status of the retail corridor. And to be sure, there are signs of success.

Roosevelt Island’s most thriving nonprofit, Main Street Theatre and Dance Alliance, (MSTDA) expanded into the former Music Playstation storefront in Rivercross, drawing much-needed foot traffic. Island OM and RIVAA Gallery hold great promise for activity, but neither are open often enough to have an impact.

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Wholesome Factory’s staying power through the pandemic was admirable, and a new public library added color and a haven for kids. The flow of eBikes running stop signs and ignoring crosswalks reflects success for China One and Fuji East.

Newcomer Granny Annie’s is so popular that you’d think it was in place for many years, but at the other extreme, The Sanctuary has cut back on things like Jazz Night for lack of patrons.

It’s a mixed bag, but it could be better if RIOC did much of anything beyond kissing the ring of the Dear Leader.

Some Suggestions

When RIOC followed our suggestion six years ago and brought the Farmers Market to Good Shepherd Plaza, we were thrilled. But look what’s happened since.

The Island of Art concept RIOC once championed along with RIVAA vanished under Haynes, but wouldn’t public art brighten the plaza? Or simply deploying the giant planters now dumped in useless clusters to break up the space…

The historically significant church bell at the entrance to Good Shepherd Plaza is filthy and neglected. No investment in upkeep encourages tourists coming to see it or the community to recognize the area as a gathering place.

Brutalist designs make perfect backdrops for murals used in various places around the world to enliven urban spaces.

What if RIOC closed the street to car traffic on weekends, as they do in so many other places? It would make it immediately more inviting and vastly safer for cyclists and pedestrians.

These are just a few of what we see as easy fixes that could make a big difference in drawing foot traffic along Main Street. With some imagination, the potential is great for rewarding businesses struggling throughout the Canyon.

And it might just encourage more people to take a nice walk down Main instead of the waterfront promenades. Neighbors meeting neighbors strengthens any community.

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