Island residents come from near and far, but few can claim to have come from quite so near as Islander Alec Dana. The 85-year-old Islander was born May 1, 1932, at City Hospital, a facility that once stood where Southpoint Park is today.
Dana’s parents, immigrants from Athens, Greece, had settled among other Greeks in Astoria, Queens. Able to manage in the neighborhood with their native language, the couple spoke little English and were welfare-poor.
Dana’s father did his best to support the family by running a neighborhood grocery. When his mother became pregnant with him, it was clear that she would be delivering at City Hospital, which served the New York City’s welfare population.
In spite of their poverty, Dana says his mother dressed him in fancy outfits – in her mind, like a little prince. She crocheted a great deal and made many of his clothes.
City Hospital was built in 1861 after an 1858 fire destroyed Charity Hospital, which had stood at the same spot. The hospital served local inmates from the Island’s penitentiary as well as the City’s poor.
Ultimately, the City changed the name of the Island to Welfare Island to reflect the mission of the institutions located there.
The hospital was closed in 1957, when operations were moved to Queens. Demolished in 1994, stones salvaged from the hospital were used to line the paths in Southpoint Park.
Memories of Welfare Island
Three years after his birth, when Dana’s mother was expecting his sister, the family was still on welfare, so she returned to City Hospital for the birth of her second child.
That’s when Dana’s memories of Roosevelt Island began. With the arrival of his sister, Dana traveled with his father and grandmother from Astoria to City Hospital. This trip included a ride on the famed Queensboro Bridge elevator that once ran down the north side of the bridge to the Island.
“The elevators were very small,” he recalls. “I remember going down the elevator while sitting on my grandmother’s lap.”
Later, the fortunes of Dana’s family took a turn for the better and his parents were able to get off welfare. His father went on to drive a cab.
And Dana? He left Queens to earn a bachelor’s degree at Syracuse University in Public Address. Since then, he’s had a distinguished career as a model, actor, ballroom dancer, and Argentine tango performer. He’s played leading roles in film, television, and video – and continues to work (alecdana.com).
In recent years, the quiet and beauty of Roosevelt Island caught the attention of Dana’s wife, Rosemarie. In 2015, they made the move to Alec’s birthplace. Many on the Island recognize Dana by his striking good looks and his signature “tieless” white shirt.
Life, it seems, has come full circle. Dana is proud to now call his birthplace home.
[Editor’s Note: If you were born on Roosevelt Island, let The WIRE know at firstname.lastname@example.org.]