Cherry Blossom Festival Attracts Tens of Thousands, Too Many Say Islanders

Around 10,000 visitors were expected on the Island for Saturday’s annual Cherry Blossom Festival. Instead, somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 came. “It was amazing, actually,” said Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation president, Susan Rosenthal, of the numbers.

The Roosevelt Island Cherry Blossom Festival has been held every year since 2011. It was the brainchild of current RIRA President Lynne Shinozaki, then-Chair of RIRA’s Social, Cultural & Educational Committee, and then-resident Junko Hasegawa.Together they planned and coordinated the festival as a fundraiser to aid relief efforts after the deadly Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami both hit Japan. The spring event is a celebration of Japanese culture and includes a traditional tea ceremony, Japanese food stands, crafts, and music and dance performances by Japanese artists. But the star of the day is the Island itself, thanks to its more than 600 Japanese cherry trees – the largest single collection in New York City, according to RIOC – which explode each spring in showers of pink and white blossoms.

This year, the story was not about the festival per se, but about the crowds. Islanders complained about not being able to get to work, not being able to get home, and about our stores running out of basic necessities. There were lines at Gristede’s for their one restroom, (not to mention Starbucks and the library), Duane Reade ran out of water, Cornell Tech and all of the vendors ran out of food, and residents complained about festival attendees walking through the Roosevelt Landings complex looking for restrooms.

Image by Ayme Dias

At 4:45 p.m., the NYPD asked the MTA to bypass the Roosevelt Island stop. About 10 minutes later at 4:54 p.m., the NYCT Subway account tweeted that the "NYPD has allowed trains to resume service at Roosevelt Island." The tweet also said that some R trains will continue running on the F line between the 36 Street station in Queens and 57 Street/7 Avenue station in Manhattan, "in an effort to help provide additional service for the attendees of the Cherry Blossom Festival."

Access by car was no better. Apparently there was signage on the bridge alerting drivers that there was no parking south of the tram. For residents coming home, that was not a problem; yet ultimately, upon getting on the bridge, those without Motorgate passes were turned away. Chris Warsing said, “It would have been better to know that prior to getting on the bridge.”

Valerie Gallagher, a Manhattan Park resident, was returning from a week-long business trip on Saturday evening. Posting in real time, she said wrote “What the heck? I've never seen so many people walking on Vernon [Boulevard] by the power plant! The subways and tram must be a disaster. My bags are so heavy that I hopped in a cab. Sitting near the Island.” Ultimately though, she said, “I had to get out and walk, could not even do so on the bridge sidewalk as that was too packed. There is a line to get on the steps to get up to the bridge.”

There were Coler Hospital staff who were unable to get onto the Island for work, and Islanders who had trouble getting off the Island to get to work. Vanessa Morais-Cardinal, a long time Islander, was one of them. She works at NYU Medical Center as a physician assistant and takes the ferry to work. Her shift started at 8pm. “I left an hour earlier than usual for my all-night shift caring for patients on an observation unit, with a multitude of acute-care needs that are ill and depend on staff like myself arriving on time to care for them. I didn’t arrive to work until close to 9 p.m., one hour after I was supposed to be there. I have never been late before, and it is unacceptable.”

She said “It was a stressful situation and also an unsafe situation for people attending the festival as well as people who live here.”

She asks, “As a medical professional, what would have happened with all this bottleneck if an ambulance needed to get to the Island to pick up someone who was in need of emergency care?”

Morais-Cardinal blames RIOC for the melee, saying, “I know this event was not solely planned by RIOC, but for me as a resident, my frustration with RIOC and its utter disregard for the people who live here is at an all time high. When will they start caring, or pretend that we matter? This is just the tip of the iceberg. Please don’t blame this on the MTA.”

RIOC President Susan Rosenthal affirmed that not only was there an ambulance on the Island, but RIOC had the support of the NYPD – four officers were on site – as well as OEM (Office of Emergency Management). Additionally, RIOC hired 20 outside security personnel as well as two supervisors and that is in addition to the 29 public safety officers that were on-duty. Rosenthal clarified that is was RIOC’s responsibility to organize security, restrooms, and the ambulance.

Tweet from Ben Kallos

City Councilman Ben Kallos tweeted out that the city needs better public transit infrastructure. Though one issue that can’t be solved by planning is a structural one: our subway station's lone exit has only four turnstiles, not enough to handle the crowds. Rosenthal said that our subway stop was not constructed for that many people to come visit us. “The platform is not equipped for that.”

A tram holds 125 people and, at the most frequent, that is 125 leaving the Island per cabin every 7.5 minutes. Rosenthal explained that to get people off the Island during the rush, they did not board trams in Manhattan so they could move people off-Island faster for safety reasons. Ferries hold between 250 and 500 depending, assuming it is empty when it arrives on the Island.

This made local news, including Gothamist,, NY1, NBC New York, ABC7NY,, not exactly what we want to be known for.

It is unclear why there were so many guests this year. Rosenthal said there was no marketing done at all. Though popular parenting websites Mommy Poppins and NY Metro Parents, as well as AMNew York, Macaroni Kid, CityGuideNY, New Yorkled, and the Japanese Embassy all featured posts about it. She said, “We thought the 10,000 [the number that attended last year] was enough.”

What could have been done differently? Where Governor’s Island is concerned, events or programs anticipating 4,000 or more attendees are required to provide additional ferry service, at their expense, to supplement Governors Island's regularly scheduled ferries.

Rosenthal said, “If we had an idea that we were going to have this many people, I don’t know what we could have done differently,” then she added, “We may have to change the way we deal with the MTA. We need more than just a plan; we need extra ferries.” Where the event planners are concerned, Rosenthal says they will be doing debriefings the next couple of days.

It is easy to point fingers and place blame. But what happens when you don’t anticipate the number of visitors you get? In our case, this event has been held yearly since 2011. Attendance has increased every year, culminating in last year’s attendance of 10,000. There were no indicia that this year’s tally would be so much larger. Rosenthal doesn’t believe that Hillary Clinton’s campaign kick-off, held at FDR Four Freedoms Park in 2015, attracted as many people.

Jim Luce, longtime MC of the event, shared in a long facebook post:

“Thank God the Cherry Blossom Festival organizers, Lynne Strong-Shinozaki and Lydia Tang, push forward every year. They informed and requested cooperation and assistance from every possible entity half-a-year ago...And SHAME on virtually each and every government official for dropping the ball and creating HAVOC ON ROOSEVELT ISLAND. The MTA, with rerouted trains, broken escalators, and in general atrocious service on weekends in general, is particularly at fault. But we salute the community institutions and organizations that participated, including the FDR Four Freedoms Park, Roosevelt Island Visual Artists Association (RIVAA) Gallery, the Main Street Theater & Dance Alliance, The Japanese Association of Roosevelt Island, etc.” And we salute the INCREDIBLE PERFORMERS as well as Manhattan Park and Hornblower Cruises for their corporate sponsorship of this important event.”

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