Sunday, September 11, 2005

Governor's Island

Many of the streets that feed down towards Battery Park have little green signs on them that direct you towards Governor's Island. My friend Breeze works in Lower Manhattan and those signs began to haunt her until this past weekend when we looked up Governor's Island on the net, realized that the following day was the last day of the year when it would be open to the public, and decided we had to go. Thus, this past Saturday, Breeze and I caught the ferry to Governor's Island. This is a whole, entire island south of Manhattan that the US military used as a base from, essentially, 1776 until 1966 when it pulled out. For the next thirty years, the island was a Coast Guard Base, and then in 1996 the Coast Guard too folded up shop.

As of 2003, the 173 acres of the island belong to the National Park Service, which doesn't quite know what to do with them. Right now, the Park Service is taking it year by year, and this year it was only open to the public to roam around on on Saturdays during the summer. (The day I went was the last day it was open, so now it is closed for the rest of the year.) Even on these open days, there is only one boat you can take there, that leaves from the ferry landing next to the Staten Island ferry landing every hour.
More than half of Governor's Island's 175 acres are made up of "reclaimed" land (I love that Army Corps euphemism) -- the land that was unearthed during the building of my very own Lexington Avenue subway line.
Although the Army left barely 10 years ago, Governor's Island is already falling apart. Most of the part that we were able to see is taken up by housing that mid-level army officers and their families lived in. (The army was not a popular career bu the late 19th century, with memories of the Civil War still strong, so the houses were meant to look enticing so that men would want to join up.) Little row houses painted a cheery yellow that date from the 1920s, all abandoned. College-dorm style barracks for the new recruits, and Georgian-style mansions for the upper-level officers.

There are even older buildings on the island - Fort Jay, built in the 1790s, has the same star-shaped Vauban layout as the forts in Old San Juan, and is built out of bricks and huge sandstones so it has much of the same look. El Morro looks out on the green Caribbean, Fort Jay faces directly towards lower Manhattan.

Underneath Fort Jay, oddly enough, there's an art installation - slow-mo, jerky video of that tomato festival in Spain where they all throw tomatoes at each other for no reason. The contorted faces and the splattered tomatoes, combined with a weird whooshy audio track, added up to - I think - some sort of anti-war sentiment that came across as very, very creepy. The contrast of the peaceful fort with the scary whooshy video tucked away in its basement, I guess. It's good art because you mostly get it, but not quite. I saw several people sidle up to the door with the exhibition inside and literally chicken out of going in.

And it was just so quiet. Hundreds of empty houses. Empty roads with tufts of grass growing up through them. Empty churches, an empty motel, empty barracks, and for the children of the officers, an empty playground. There is no running water on the island - visitors have to use port-a-potties - and there's only one place to get food: a hotdog stand run by a very lucky hot dog vendor who waits by the ferry landing. Whatever the park service thinks it's going to do, it's going to take some work. Hundreds of falling apart buildings is really cool looking, but I can't imagine it with a lot of kids running around a la your typical national park.

We stuck ourselves to the back of the one tour group, where the tour guide was telling hopeful little stories about how, maybe, it was because Fort Jay looked so formidable that Governor's Island sort of, maybe, played a pivotal role in the success of the American Revolution. This was, maybe, not very convincing but we all appreciated the effort.

It was shocking to be so near the city but to be standing in the middle of a huge field, and to hear waves, and to breathe air that smelled like ocean and grass. And it was surprising, because you're used to feeling like the city goes on forever, but once you're out, you're out, and it goes on without you. Kind of like how I feel about college right now (*sniffle*) but that's another blog post for another day...


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