My parents moved to Roosevelt Island with me in January of 1977. I was three months old. The community I grew up in was small and isolated. The Island back then was populated by a group of like-minded adventurers who may have moved here from far-flung places, but once here and they became united in their interest to take care of one another and make this Island a better place to live.
I predate Manhattan Park and the subway. When I was a kid, there was a soccer field where 475 Main Street currently sits and the old Nurse’s residences stood behind it. There was another field where PS/IS 217 is currently located. The Octagon was not known for its eco-friendly luxury back then. Instead, it was a burned-out ruin surrounded by a tall fence. We used to have gym class at the Sportspark, and PS/IS 217 was housed in the mini-schools now occupied by The Child School.
I say all of this not to assert that I am more Islander than you, but to say that when I moved back here in 2012 (after leaving for college in the mid-90s), the Island felt less friendly, and the sense of community I missed when I was away didn’t seem to be here anymore. I thought we had gotten too big, that the anonymity of city life had finally overtaken us. I also wasn’t a kid anymore, so the way I looked at the Island had changed.
Belonging to a community is not a one-way thing. It’s not about just taking and enjoying the benefits of belonging to a group. It’s also about giving and caring enough to get involved with the local issues and decisions, putting in the work, the hours, and putting up with the politics.
Emile Topilin’s story of his neighbors’ support after a fire touched me, because he experienced what I know to be who we truly are: it’s the kindness of strangers, who aren’t strangers, rather they’re like-minded, caring people you just don’t know yet.
It may seem like all you need to know about who we are as a community can be found in a RIRA meeting. We argue; we can be petty; sometimes it seems like our bad behavior harms more than helps us. Yet we, as a community, are in our early 40s. Perhaps we are in a mid-life crisis, feeling the pressure to contribute and an unwillingness to compromise.
I am reassured to know that the soul of the Island still exists in Island House, and I am sure it still exists in your buildings too.