It is not just the rushing wind and lapping waves that send a shiver down the spine as you walk along the narrow riverfront of Roosevelt Island.
Across the East River are glittering views of Manhattan. On the island itself, however, are hulking ruins of an ominous past, when it was home to the infirm and insane. Nearby, in a scattering of brutalist apartment buildings, is a monument of a different sort: to a grand social experiment whose time, like that of the ruins, is in the past.
Beginning in 1975, Roosevelt Island became something never before seen: an urban utopia, a community planned and built for working class New Yorkers. Four otherwise nondescript apartment buildings became the homes of Roosevelt Island’s first non-institutionalized residents under an affordable housing program called Mitchell-Lama.
This experiment in social engineering would establish a remarkably close-knit and diverse community that transcended income, race, and ethnicity. People sent their children to the same schools. They created civic organizations. They integrated the disabled into their community.
By all measures it was a great success. So why did it only happen once?
What would become known as Roosevelt Island was first known as Blackwell’s Island and then Welfare Island. Its isolation made it the convenient place to hide away New York’s social outcasts in institutions that included a penitentiary, the infamous New York Lunatic Asylum, and the nation’s first smallpox hospital. This dark history took a turn in 1969, when the city leased the island to the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC).
The corporation “basically had carte blanche to do what they wanted on an empty island,” said Adam Tanaka, an analyst at HR&A Advisors, a real estate strategy firm. The UDC’s ambitious master plan, designed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, aimed to rapidly transform the site of ruins.
“The concept was that it was going to be a new town,” said long-time Roosevelt Island resident Pat Schwartzberg. She moved to the island in 1977, two years after it officially opened for residency, and lived in Eastwood — one of Roosevelt’s four buildings at the time, all of which provided moderate and middle-incoming housing under Mitchell-Lama. That program financed up to 95% of the developments; tax exemptions were granted to developers in return for creating affordable housing.
This was not the only Mitchell-Lama development in the city. The Mitchell-Lama Housing Program was signed into law in 1955, sponsored by State Senator MacNeil Mitchell and Assemblyman Alfred Lama and aiming to provide housing for the lower and middle class. While the UDC developed several buildings under the program, such as the Twin Parks Apartments in the Bronx and Marcus Garvey Village in Brooklyn, Roosevelt Island was by far the organization’s largest project. In Roosevelt Island: Exception to a City in Crisis, urban studies researcher Yonah Freemark writes that the island’s development included 2,148 units at an estimated cost of between $250 and $400 million.
The project was financed with a combination of money from the UDC and federal loans. This federal support included below-market mortgages from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Upon completion, the four buildings were sold to private operators. Owners of Mitchell-Lama developments only have a 20-year commitment to remain in the program, after which they have the right to “buy out” and pay off their mortgage.
The Eastwood complex was the largest of the buildings, with 1,003 units, while the other three buildings contained around 400 units each. Aimed toward low and moderate-income residents, Eastwood charged lower rents than Island House and Westview, which housed middle-income families. The fourth building, Rivercross, was comprised of co-op apartments for purchase. Freemark writes that monthly charges varied from $30 per month for seniors in Eastwood to $1,049 for a four-bedroom in Rivercross, subsidized with state and federal funding.
The diversity of this new community did not just extend to income level. Schwartzberg explained that her children were raised in a multi-racial, multi-economic, and multi-generational neighborhood, seeing the “disabled as part of the community, the elderly as part of the community — never mind color.”
The Eastwood complex housed a large senior population, in addition to featuring apartments specifically designed for the physically disabled. This latter demographic was particularly significant: the island was also home to the Goldwater Memorial Hospital and Bird S. Coler Hospital, two institutions for the disabled and chronically ill.
The racial makeup of the island quickly diversified as well. While 14% of the population was Black and 9% Hispanic in the 1980 census, by 2000 these numbers rose to 27% and 14% respectively, in addition to 11% Asian.
Most residents moved to Roosevelt Island between 1975 and 1979, says Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society. “Everyone was new on the island, we were all moving somewhere new at the same time, right? So it was the beginning of a community.” The pioneers would form tight bonds as they relocated to what had been an abandoned island in the middle of the East River.
Clubs and organizations formed: Boy Scouts, Little League, Garden Club, Toastmasters. The corporation engineered community spaces that, Schwartzberg said, “enabled a lot of the activism. We had places to go and get together and decide things, and not have to pay for the space.”
She remembers the local restaurant Green Kitchen as a community hub. Parents plopped their children at the counter while they attended nightly meetings to discuss one activist cause or another, knowing the owners would look after the kids and feed them dinner. “And then we’d go there after the meeting,” she added. “Because we never got tired of talking. We talked before the meeting, after the meeting, we were constantly ‘gab gab gab.’ But it was fun.”
Perhaps it was the sense of separation from life on the mainland, of being a tram ride over the water away from midtown Manhattan, that led residents largely to associate with each other. Nothing escaped the communal glare; children couldn’t get away with anything; it was hard to skip class when your parents knew so many other parents on the island.
The schools themselves were designed to be integrated. Beginning with elementary school and extending until high school, grades were clustered so that each building in the complex had its own “mini-schools,” with perhaps three grades attending classes in any one building. As a result each child eventually attended classes in all four buildings, inevitably meeting a range of children and families not bound by income, race, or class.
This was Roosevelt Island up until the early 2000s. Then, one by one, the Mitchell-Lama developments elected to leave the program. In their book Affordable Housing in New York, Nicholas Bloom and Matthew Lasner wrote that Eastwood became the first development to buy out of the program in 2005, when residents negotiated a deal with the building’s owner Jerome Belson. While the building was converted to a market-rate rental, the tenancies of current below market-rate tenants were protected. Between 2007 and 2016 the share of below-market tenants had fallen from 87% to 58%.
In 2012, Island House became the next Mitchell-Lama development to leave the program. The building’s owner WV Preservation Partners withdrew Island House from Mitchell-Lama and converted the building into a co-op, with units sold and vacated after the conversion moving to market rate. However, a program worked out with the Division of Housing and Community Renewal allowed tenants the opportunity to purchase their apartments at reduced prices.
WV Preservation Partners also own Westview, a development that left Mitchell-Lama in 2018. After negotiations with the Westview Task Force, an organization advocating for residents of Westview, the building was converted into a co-op offering existing tenants the opportunity to purchase their units at an estimated 30% of market value or stay on as renters with an initial rent increase of 15% and future rent increases set by the Rent Guidelines Board. Once vacated, these units would become market-rate.
Meanwhile, Rivercross, the only original Mitchell-Lama co-op on the island, went private in 2014. The decision to buy-out in a Mitchell-Lama co-op is made by a shareholder vote. In the case of Rivercross, privatization allowed tenants to sell their current apartments, bought at affordable prices under Mitchell-Lama, at market rate.
Why did Roosevelt Island dissolve such a successful affordable housing program, one that allowed for the creation of a well-loved and eclectic community?
As Berdy puts it, “the greed factor” was the main incentive.
For residents of Rivercross, Tanaka described financial incentives for tenants who “paid almost nothing to move in to then be able to realize massive windfall profits on their units.” For example, Berdy purchased her apartment in Rivercross for $26,000 before the building was privatized. It’s now worth $500,000. As soon as the building voted to go private, the purchase price rose to market rates.
Schwartzberg also bought a Rivercross unit before the dissolution of Mitchell-Lama, paying $28,900 in 2003; it was later assessed at a value of $660,000. “All of a sudden I had this asset,” she said. For Roosevelt Islanders who were able to buy apartment units at subsidized rates before the Mitchell-Lama buy-out, privatization was the opportunity of a lifetime. Yet Schwartzberg was still against privatization on principle, as she “was hoping to hold on to the original concept of what the island was.”
The Mitchell-Lama buy-out also meant that new residents hoping to move into these four buildings would be doing so at market rates. Tension and fear permeated the privatization process, says Arlene Bessenoff, who has lived on Roosevelt Island since 1986. “It was fear of the unknown: Will the building change in ways that were not to certain people’s interest?”
The privatization process didn’t just change the buildings, say longtime residents. It changed the whole island. Between 2006 and 2010, the median income of island residents was $74,194, according to census data. From 2014 to 2018, this rose to $100,487. Laura Hussey, a local artist, laments that the loss of Mitchell-Lama turned Roosevelt Island into “the rest of New York.”
The diversity that was a hallmark of the island has decreased considerably. The percentage of Black and Hispanic residents on Roosevelt Island decreased by 10.2% and 0.6% respectively between 2014-2018, compared to eight years earlier, according to the American Community Survey. At the same time there was a 17% increase of Asian residents.“You have many less minorities moving in,” Berdy said. “You have less people of lower income brackets.”
Market value apartments inevitably attract a wealthier demographic. “By its nature, it is less welcoming, said Bessenoff. “It’s not a deliberate, hostile environment. But it will attract a different level of income earner.” She added that the community is no longer as welcoming of the disabled. Goldwater Hospital was decommissioned and demolished in 2013 in order to make way for the new Cornell NYC Tech university campus.
Meanwhile, resident George Fertig walked me to Island House, a former Mitchell-Lama, to show the “horrible fence” that has been built around the building’s courtyard. For Fertig, the privatization of public space manifested by such fences — common across the island’s buildings, but none as imposing as this one — represents a clear and total break from the corporation’s initial vision of an integrated community.
Roosevelt Island’s initial utopian community now remains a relic, frozen in time, transpiring just once. Why hasn’t there been an attempt to recreate it?
For one, the demographic at the heart of Mitchell-Lama and the UDC’s master plan has disintegrated.
“It was housing built for an era of organized labor, the mass middle class, which just doesn’t exist anymore,” said Tanaka. The income distribution of New York City as a whole has transitioned from a robust middle-income demographic to one that is ever more high and low income. The major advocates for Mitchell-Lama programs were unions that helped mobilize housing developments to provide apartments for their members. Tanaka explained that “today’s unions are much less powerful and also represent a different type of employment than they did back then.”
There is also the mindset of the government at the time, something that has shifted considerably according to residents. “You don’t have a benevolent government, you don’t have the days of the 1960s where the people cared about housing the poor people and getting better middle-income housing,” says Berdy.
The state, Schwartzberg says, also simply has more pressing matters, such as homelessness, that take precedence over the creation of planned, mixed income communities. “I don’t think it will naturally happen ever,” she said. “I think it’s a willful thing. It’s intentional. But there aren’t any intentions as far as I know.”
But what of the experiment’s legacy. Tanaka argues that “only a half, or maybe even a third of that original vision was realized, because the UDC went bankrupt. And then the city and state went into a recession.”
By the time the four buildings began to consider privatizing, there was a sense that they wouldn’t be able to be maintained without the income of market-rate units. Even during the times of Mitchell-Lama, residents fought building developers who tried to raise the rent to support the island’s infrastructure — Schwartzberg and her neighbors staged rent strikes, even taking the matter to court three separate times.
When Schwartzberg later moved to Rivercross, tenants attempted to incorporate an affordable aspect to the building’s privatization, hoping to keep certain units under the old Mitchell-Lama rules. But they could never get that approved by the state.
Nowadays, Roosevelt Island is certainly geared towards a different demographic. According to Andrew Feeley, an employee at the island’s historic Blackwell House, the wealth gap between residents has increased over the years and the island is simply no longer focused on lower-income families.
Yet some residents, such as Schwartzberg, don’t really mind the influx of wealthier residents. As she puts it, “because of the gentrification, wealthier families with children are moving in here. We need children in this building,” she said. “This building was starting to look like a nursing home.” These newer residents may be different from the island’s first residential community, but they are still a community nonetheless, albeit a different one.
While Roosevelt Island’s utopia will likely never again be recreated, perhaps that is what made the experiment so special. As Berdy said, “no one in my income level will ever be able to buy this apartment.”