The Accidental Historian of Roosevelt Island

A Q&A with Judith Berdy, President of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society

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Dayspring Church. Photograph courtesy of the author

Over the last four centuries, the strip of land on the East River between Manhattan and Queens in New York City, today called Roosevelt Island, underwent a series of repurposing and renaming. In the 17th century, what was once a Native American land was colonized by the Dutch and eventually became part of the greater fabric of New York City. But Roosevelt Island developed separately from the rest of the city; throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, Blackwell’s Island, as it was called then, was home to various almshouses and penitentiaries as well as the New York City Lunatic Asylum.

Yet in 1969, after a few decades of neglect, the island was redeveloped into a residential neighborhood and renamed after President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Judith Berdy is the president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. She has lived on Roosevelt Island since the 1970s, in the early days of its existence as a residential neighborhood. Berdy came upon the unusual history of Roosevelt Island almost by accident.

How long have you lived on Roosevelt Island?

Only 42 years. I lived in Manhattan you know in 1977 when I was moving out of my parents’ house. I said, “Oh this place looks nice and it’s affordable.” And it was brand-new and it’s a new community so you didn’t feel like if you’re single like you’re a complete stranger. So I’ve just been here forever and it’s a wonderful community and it’s completely different than anywhere else in the city and you know it’s very cohesive. We all get along — most of us get along.

How did you get involved with the Roosevelt Island Historical Society?

I took a tour of the island and then eventually I got interested in it and the person who was running it didn’t want to share the island’s history and he died and never wrote the book and I ended up inheriting all his material and that started with me collecting all his stuff.

He never wanted to share it with anyone. He would put on an exhibit and then he would put a big plastic sheet over the table so no one could read it or lift it up or smash it.

He moved here in the 1960s before the island was developed.

Well, he lived, he came in 1965 and he moved [sic] in the church [of the Good Shepherd] and then he moved out. Then he moved out of the church because it was being repaired and renovated… And then when that was, when the apartments were built, he lived in an apartment.

So that’s how he wanted to share the history. And he was always gonna write a book but he never did and he then died.

Tell me about your first time taking the tram, and then later the subway: What that was like for you?

I went, I paid 35 cents. I got on the tram, the night it opened, took a ride, came back, went home.

I lived five blocks from the tram [on the Manhattan side] at that time. And then the tram, I’m so glad I was there.

October 29th, 1989 I took a subway ride. Really, not very unexciting. I think in those days I probably had to pay 50 cents to ride the subway.

Or 60 cents. No, I mean it was just part of mass transit. You know, it’s nice when it was wonderful to have this tram. I didn’t live here. When the tram opened, I moved the next year. But I was definitely here [when] the subway opened, which was almost ready for years. It was 14 years late. So by the time the subway came, we were all so well accustomed to the tram. It was a nonstarter.

I mean, I did take the subway to work depending on where I was working, but preferential treatment was always the tram.

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The Blackwell House. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Was that just because it’s more reliable or because you were just used to it by then?

Well it was open, reliable, clean. It’s a three minute ride. It’s pleasant. The view was spectacular.

But then the tram stayed open. Would that be because of popular demand?

Well, yeah, because the residents wanted the tram. It’s safer and it’s easier for disabled people and seniors.

Oh, okay. Interesting. Yeah, I haven’t thought about that. But it’s more accessible than the subway.

Oh much more accessible. Yeah.

Did you feel anything special when you were going on the tram or the subway the first time?

No. I’m a New Yorker. It’s not like, golly, it’s not like the first time I climbed to the top of the Statue of Liberty or something. I mean [there are] very few things in my life that I’ve considered earth-shattering, you know. I flew on a jet plane, you know I flew on the Concord. I’ve flown many times. I’ve gone to many places.

What was it like when you first moved in? What was here, what had yet to come?

Well, when I moved here, the first phase was complete, which was the parking garage, the supermarket, the swimming pool, the sports park building, uh, [inaudible], which is a gym and a pool. And then there was the apartment houses… I mean, that was all done. Then over the years we added other buildings. We added three or four more sets of apartment houses. But the basic infrastructure was built. There [sic] was some people who moved here before the street was paved, but I waited for the street to be.

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Journalist and sometimes satirist

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