Memorable Travel Moments: Our Imaginations Run Wild on Roosevelt Island, NYC (1987)

My 1987 visit to a friend in New York City included many memorable experiences:  My first view of the city from the top of the Empire State Building (the World Trade Center was too new and gauche for my host, so I went there on a later trip); shopping for fabric in Garment District; cheering and jeering with the rest of the crowd during a showing of The Princess Bride (the original theater run) in the Village; marveling at the beauty and peace of Central Park; and laughing harder than I ever would have thought possible at the running commentary of my gay and redneck hosts as we watched the Miss America pageant. It was an amazing, if slightly surreal, trip.

Most surreal of all was the afternoon we spent on Roosevelt Island.    

In those days there wasn’t much happening on Roosevelt Island. The island was being redeveloped for residential use, but much of it was still vacant. Large weedy fields sprouted fences to keep the few people who ventured there far from the long-boarded up buildings that once housed facilities for prisoners, the mentally ill, and others the city wanted kept far from the general population. But even the new mixed-use residential areas were largely deserted, as they served a population that abandoned this island every day to work elsewhere. When we arrived – midafternoon on a sunny week day – it was, literally, deserted. The glimmering towers of Manhattan looked very far away, unreal, and equally without evidence of human activity. 
(Manhattan from the river in 1987, probably taken on our way to Roosevelt Island)

Adding to the oddity of being in a place where there were plenty of signs of human activity, but no humans to be seen, was that all the new buildings were built in the same blocky style, using the same brick, with identical plain signs that identified the use (“Drug Store” or “Restaurant”) without any names, graphics or further explanation.

It felt like we had stumbled into an Orwellian dystopia.  

Pretty soon our imaginations took over: Clearly, we were the last survivors of a traumatic event that removed all other humans from earth. We had escaped to this island, but we needed to avoid detection, as any “humans” we might come across were likely alien imposters and part of the evil plot that had emptied out the shimmering city across the river. Obviously they were establishing their new world order here and it was a soulless world devoid of art, humor or human warmth.

We spent the entire afternoon exploring the island in the warm fall sunshine, conducting reconnaissance, and occasionally ducking out of sight to avoid detection.

It was a blast to just play, amazing to be so close to the city and yet so completely on our own.

The world has changed so much since that day.

Thank you, Richard. I still think of you and miss you. 

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