RIOC’s President on Her Goals, Her Challenges, and Her Purple Office

On February 1, Mark Strong Shinozaki and Francine Elisaia, both 16-year-old Islanders, sat down with Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation President Susan Rosenthal to discuss her past experiences, her present accomplishments on the Island, and her vision for our future. The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by Island teens in conjunction with the Children, Youth & Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). Throughout the year, the group will be interviewing Islanders about their experiences and their hopes for the next 25 years.

Francine Elisaia, RIOC President Susan Rosenthal, RIRA Children, Youth & Education Committee Chair Adib Mansour, and Mark Strong Shinozaki.

Mark Shinozaki: Ms. Rosenthal, please give us a glimpse of your life prior to becoming president of RIOC.

Susan Rosenthal: I practiced law for 38 years. I was also a managing partner of both law firms and litigation departments. I was a litigator primarily in business law; that’s the person that goes into court when businesses have disputes. I was also an arbitrator and mediator for the United States District Courts. I went into law because frankly I didn’t know what else to do. I finished college in 1971 and there were limited opportunities for women; I didn’t want to be a nurse or a secretary or a teacher. I was encouraged by my parents to dream a dream and do whatever I could think of. Someone said to me, law is a great profession for females because they could just go into government or business, or law firms, or put out a shingle and practice out of their house if they wanted to have a family. So, since I loved school, I said this is a great idea; I just stayed in school another 3 years–which is how long the legal schooling is. So that’s what I did and then I was a partner in a large law firm before I came to RIOC.

Shinozaki: How does Roosevelt Island compare to the place where you grew up? Were there things that you wanted to bring and introduce to Roosevelt Island?

Rosenthal: I grew up in Flushing, Queens; it was very different than it is today, but, quite frankly, it didn’t have the sense of community that Roosevelt Island has. It was a community but it didn’t have a Main Street, in a small geographical space. So quite frankly I think this community has a lot more to offer than the community in which I grew up so there was nothing I wanted to bring here; if anything, what I have found here are ideas to bring elsewhere in the next chapter in my life.

Shinozaki: Have you had any fun or interesting stories on Roosevelt Island you’d like to share with us?

Rosenthal: When I was coming here, taking over this office you’re sitting in, I decided I like color. So I decided to bring my favorite color into this office space. My office staff thought it was horrible. How could I have a purple office; this is a serious government office space. I said , “No, I want purple.” For fun, my office staff put the poster that you now see on the back of the door – it’s Prince’s Purple Rain. The color makes me smile every day.

Francine Elisaia: What attracted you to politics and specifically here on Roosevelt Island?

Rosenthal: Well, I don’t think of this job as politics. I think of this as government service. I practiced law for 38 years, as I said, and sometimes I viewed myself as a servant to the rich. I felt I wanted to give something back to society. Quite frankly, when I got out of law school, I thought I would be making the world better, but I had a lot of student loans and was offered a really great job when I graduated, so I went the road of corporate law. I felt, after 38 years and raising a family, it was time to give back and I saw an ad in the Law Journal where the Governor was looking for General Counsel. I answered the ad, got the job, and never looked back.

Elisaia: What are your top five favorite things here on the Island?

Susan Rosenthal: I have more than five but I am going to give the five.

I LOVE the Smallpox Hospital. One of my interests is to save it, even though there are many people on the island think it should just be torn down. But I think it is beautiful and I think the fact that the architect is the same one as Saint Patrick’s Cathedral is so exciting.

I think Four Freedoms Park is magnificent. When I read the words from President Roosevelt’s speech in 1941, I think, it brings tears to my eyes no matter how many times I read it. And I love standing there looking at the UN. So I think it is absolutely fantastic.

I think the Tram is fantastic! I ride it every day and I think it is beautiful. It has become a symbol of this island.

I love the Red Bus, and the fact that we are able to have a bus and not charge anybody anything. I love sitting on the red bus and seeing all different races, creeds, religions, tongues. It makes me feel really proud to be on this island.

And I love Main Street, even though it is not as good as it should be. I think the fact that we have this Main Street coming down the center of the island with the whole island is around it, I think that is something that inspires me for the future.

Elisaia: At the beginning of your presidency, were there any goals you set that you have since accomplished? And what else do you still want to achieve?

Rosenthal: I think when I became president, I felt that there were a lot of plans that had not been implemented over many, many years. I felt the Island had 40 years of growth and not repair, and that it needed infrastructure work badly. Since I’ve been president – I decided to make a list of a few things we’ve been doing so I can pat myself on the back a little bit – we have new Tram platforms that are not completed yet, but they’re almost completed. We’re renovating Blackwell House. We are going to have new seawall railings all around the entire Island; we’ve signed the contract and it’s going to start very soon. We’re going to have a beautiful new elevator on Second Avenue, we signed that contract already. We also applied for a grant for a bike ramp off of the bridge and got it. We’re now doing an RFP to hire an engineer to do the drawings for it. I’m pretty excited about these things actually moving forward. And there are many more things we want to do.

You asked me, what are my priorities for things we haven’t started doing yet, and there are really two. One is to revitalize Main Street. I’m excited about working with our new assistant vice president of planning to come up with ideas to encourage retail on Main Street and to encourage people to move from the south physically, to walk up Main Street and move north. That’s one of my priorities for the future.

And the second one is Sportspark. I love Sportspark; I think it is a fantastic building. We have a whole second floor that is going to be renovated. I promised Dr. Grimm, our Island pediatrician, we’d redo the bathrooms and locker rooms. I wanted to do this immediately, but my planning department said, “Look, we need to really make sure we take care of whatever infrastructure needs the building has.” The building needs new windows. The building needs a new HVAC system. I don’t know if you’ve been there when it’s hot and you’re sweating or when it’s cold and there’s no heat. So we’re looking at the entire building instead of just doing it piecemeal; that’s a major project.

Shinozaki: Since joining the Roosevelt Island community, what is the biggest change on the Island you have seen outside of RIOC?

Rosenthal: That’s a real easy questions. It’s Cornell! I’m exciting about Cornell. I deal with their management weekly; I mean they’re still building, so we coordinate all their efforts. But the real impact of it is yet to be determined. We don’t have any idea truly, what impact it’s going to have on our life here and I think that’s going to be the biggest change, and I’m excited about it. We’re already working with the students at Cornell to improve processes here in RIOC. I’m looking forward, for example, to a calendar we’re going to have, because of Cornell’s efforts, of everything that’s going on the Island. So RIRA won’t have their own calendar; RIOC won’t have their own calendar; and Cornell won’t have their own calendar. There’ll be one calendar that everyone can look at to see what’s going on Roosevelt Island. That’s one thing they’re doing now. They did the survey for us for Sportspark; what does the community want in terms of activities there. So, in terms of working together, that’ll be a big change. But I think it’s going to have a bigger change in terms of life here. We’re going to have students walking around and living here. So I don’t know what it’s going to be, but it’s going to be dramatic.

Shinozaki: As president of RIOC, what do you think should change on the Island to make it a better place?

Rosenthal: That’s a dangerous question. I’m just going to say that there should be less divisiveness, that there should be more optimism, and there should be more gratitude for what we have here. I thought about that question for a while.

Elisaia: As a woman in politics, how do you believe the role of women in Roosevelt Island’s politics and federal government will change in 25 years?

Rosenthal: Well, the president of RIOC is a woman, and we have a governor who has women all over his administration. So I think the major change I see is going to be in the federal government. We’ve had very small percentages of women in Congress and we’ve never had a female President. So I think that in the next 25 years we will see a female president.

Elisaia: Do you have any plans on running for President of the United States in the future?

Rosenthal: None whatsoever.

Elisaia: Viewing your life success, what message do you have to teenage girls like me?

Rosenthal: It’s a good question. I would say that I was always encouraged to think outside the box and dream the biggest dreams you can possibly dream. So I would encourage you to do the same. Don’t think you’re limited by any criteria. Think about what you want to do, and go for it.

Shinozaki: What could students our age do to become more involved in the betterment of Roosevelt Island?

Rosenthal: I believe in volunteerism. When I was in college, I volunteered for community projects. We built a teen center; we actually raised money to build a vest-pocket park. I’m just giving you ideas that may not be relevant to Roosevelt Island, but I would encourage volunteerism. There’s the Senior Center, the Disabled Association, and I’m sure, through RIRA, there are activities that encourage young people to volunteer, because there are so many things to do and there are limited funds.

Elisaia: Where do you see Roosevelt Island’s infrastructure, transportation, and technological usage in the next 25 years and what do you think needs the most improvement?

Rosenthal: Well, transportation is going to be, to me, what’s going to be the thing that needs to be focused on in the next 25 years. I think there will be changes in the way we move around. We only have one road. We’re already reaching out to the Department of Transportation to get their insight into traffic flow; we’d like them to look at our Island to see what different ideas there might be, because we’re limited on our roads and we’re going to have more people. We probably will need new roads. I know there are a lot of people that love the Z-bricks, but at some point, we may think about different kinds of roads that make it easier to move around. So I think that will be a challenge.

The most improvement? Motorgate needs to be improved. It’s a big job. I love the paintings, but other than that it needs a facelift, it needs waterproofing, it needs new signage, it needs new striping, it may need new spaces. I think it is going to need a lot of help.

The biggest thing that is going to need improvement? It’s the seawall around the entire island. We had Sandy (the storm). In the reality of climate change, who knows what is going happen over the next 25 years? We need to protect the island and that is going to be a huge job and a very expensive job for which we will have to go outside of this community to seek funds for. We’re going to be doing a small amount of seawall repair around Southpoint Park. But in terms of the entire island, that is a really huge project.

Elisaia: How might we use technology to deepen the relationship between residents in the community?

Rosenthal: I think it is all about communication. Through technology, there’s got to be more interaction between the residents and their government. There is a lot of interaction here, more so than other communities. You know, I get emails every day from residents telling me their thoughts about what needs to be fixed or how they feel about different issues. But I think a real interactive website is something we are striving for, and we’re actually hoping to launch it next month.

I am not sure what else we can do in terms of technology because, quite frankly, I am a dinosaur. I rely on my children still for everything that I need done. And I run around here looking for a 20-year-old to help me every day. So I am not the perfect person to answer this question.

Shinozaki: Last time we chatted, you emphasized on the importance of Roosevelt Island being a very culturally diverse community; Why is it so important to you that it remains a hot spot for cultural, ethnic, racial and religious diversity?

Rosenthal: Well, I think that’s what makes our country strong. We’ve always been a country of immigrants and diversity which is very different than other countries in the world and I think it makes us grow, and it makes us exciting, it makes us creative, it makes us successful and hard working. It helps us accomplish great things. Like I said before, I think it is fantastic that we have so many different people here and that’s what makes us an exciting community.

Shinozaki: When we first introduced this project to you, you were thrilled about it. I was wondering how do you think people will feel about the project in 25 and 50 years?

Rosenthal: I am excited about the project and I think it is because I am kind of a history buff. When I was 42 years old, I took a trip to the Ukraine to see where my great-grandparents and my grandparents came from. It was exciting to see that past and I think that is what the time capsule will provide. It will be a look into the past for the people who live here in 25 years.

Elisaia: As President of RIOC and a successful female, what do you wish your legacy to be in 25 years? What do you want people to remember you the most for?

Rosenthal: Other than my hats, I would want people to remember me for getting things done. You know I have a picture on my desk; it says, “I must learn patience.” That was given to me by my staff up in Albany before I came here because I have no patience. I want to get things done and sometimes in government it doesn’t happen as fast as you like because there are certain rules and regulations you have to follow – for good ethical reasons. But I would like people to remember me as not having enough patience and wanting to have things done. And also for integrity and honesty.

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