Roosevelt Island – How Did We Get Here from There?


Things we never expected on Roosevelt Island are here and now – crime, tidal waves of tourists, many of them rude, official corruption… and displays of mismanagement enough to make your eyes spin. But how really did we get here from there?

The Roosevelt Island Daily News

On a day back in June 2020, a troubling series of events shook Roosevelt Island. Governor Andrew Cuomo’s factotum, Rich Azzopardi, gave the New York Post a scoop. Cuomo fired RIOC President/CEO Susan Rosenthal, without notice, he said, for sexual and racial misconduct.

The state then, led by board chair RuthAnne Visnauskas, violated key rules involving employee terminations. Rosenthal was never given a chance to defend herself, for example. And RIOC’s Over the Hill Gangboard of directors played happily along.

Without considering other, more qualified candidates on its own staff, the board immediately promoted COO Shelton J. Haynes as acting CEO. No one else was interviewed then or before the assignment became permanent nine months later.

As it turned out, the state was never able to provide a single piece of evidence or sworn statements supporting accusations against Rosenthal. (A lawsuit filed by Rosenthal is currently making its way through the court system.)

As for Haynes, he is no more qualified in 2023 than he was in 2020.

All that’s been covered before. Our task here is following the results from that day as they led us to where we are in 2023.

RIOC’s Roosevelt Island Turn, 2020 Onward

Who’s minding the store? On the morning of the latest mugging, RIOC did not have a single executive at work as this photo of the New York State Shelton J. Haynes Parking Area shows.

The shenanigans surrounding Rosenthal’s dismissal are now well-known and have been reported. Mostly, it was based on gossip and innuendo without a single, sworn firsthand account. But for Cuomo, of course, facts never mattered as much as political support and cash campaign contributions.

Probably the most impactful act resulting from Haynes’s promotion was his “vision” for Roosevelt Island. When the “hidden gem” tactic poked through, it was nearly as troubling as his taking over from Rosenthal with a full scale action plan in hand.

Without knowing of the move against Rosenthal in advance, how could he be so prepared for it?

The other thing he was prepared for was a marketing plan for this “hidden gem” in the East River. He saw that as more important that simply governing effectively.

At an early board meeting, he introduced Communications Director Erica Spencer-EL who presented a scheme for “branding and marketing” Roosevelt Island. No one on RIOC’s superannuated board raised the obvious question: Why?

A community is not up for sale, and nothing in the state agency’s enabling legislation even remotely suggests marketing. But there it was.

And these are the results.

Downstream, Banks Overflow

Even if marketing a community like an Oreo cookie or a mining operation was appropriate, floating it without thoroughly considering potential outcomes wasn’t. The Hall of Failures is littered with tales of unintended consequences.

While skyrocketing rental and condo sales prices may explain the motives, they do nothing to help the community. But other unexpected results are worse.

All land from the “hidden gem” campaign, which in recent promotions strives at concealing mismanagement and possible corruption.

The Tram

Congealed near the top of the 2023 mess are the masses of tourists cramming into the tram for a cheap joyride. The trip across the East River is one of the most photographed and video tracked on the planet.

But on a single roundtrip between Roosevelt Island and the big island, I was bumped by a mom rushing her pre-schooler into the seat with the reserved for seniors sign above. On the way back, I was pushed aside by a twenty-something whose need for a window seat outweighed common courtesy.

In neither case did the Tram operator break the RIOC-inspired code of silence, and there wasn’t a single Public Safety Officer in sight.

Many have had similar experiences, and a number of residents gave up on the Tram, forgoing the tourist experience on this “hidden gem.”

RIOC never thought ahead and has not modified anything. Those still using the Tram face long lines, especially on weekends, and badly overcrowded cabins.


The increase in crime brought out by lifting this “hidden gem” into the spotlight is unavoidable, no matter how hard RIOC works at hiding it.

Not long ago, Roosevelt Islanders understood the secret to low crime rates and a safe community. Put simply, why would criminals come here, going out of their way, when so much opportunity waited in Times Square and Central Park, among other crowded locations?

Until recent years, you could get into arguments trying to convince fellow New Yorkers that we even had subway service.

“Do you have to ride the thing?” they’d ask, gesturing above their heads.

But this gem has been unearthed. Delinquents learned that snatching goods from Duane Reade was less challenging because a subway escape was steps away.

And as reported last year, a group openly used drugs on the Queens-bound subway platform. Everyone except Public Safety and NYPD noticed.

Gangs of teenagers from elsewhere roamed the promenades, launching racists attacks on residents out for an evening stroll.

And of course, as we saw this summer for the first time, muggings in broad daylight on Main Street are part of the scene.

Wrap Up

Of course, Cornell Tech and especially the Graduate Hotel contributed to increasing Roosevelt Island’s profile. The hotel has had its own incidents of crime, some not reported locally. But nothing compares with RIOC’s unrestrained “branding and marketing.”

Not all tourists push and shove on the Tram, and few if any are criminals. But they blossom from the same fertilizer. The Hochul/Haynes administration fetched one and all while making no plans for handling the results.

And the aid freely given to real estate developers who now command prices we never imagined five years ago was an unforced error that’s eroding the middle class, washing it out of Roosevelt Island.

The “hidden gem” isn’t hidden anymore. And neither is the privacy, calm and safety we once knew.

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