RIRA's Grassroots Beginnings

November 12, 2017

[Editor’s note: The following is a reprint of an article published in 2007, at the time of RIRA’s 30th anniversary, with some minor edits. We feel the perspective it offers of RIRA’s history, and the issues the organization has faced, is important for new – as well as long-term – Islanders.]



Though Roosevelt Island now boasts a Starbucks and a Duane Reade, some aspects of life on the “Little Apple” have remained remarkably the same since my family moved here in May of 1977.


We joined a small group of residents keen to be part of an experimental residential community that Ed Logue (Head of the New York State Urban Development Corporation) envisioned on an island in the middle of the East River. For the early “settlers” of Roosevelt Island, activism was a necessity, and virtually everyone was involved in one group or another to create the social services needed to support our new community. It was a mecca for young families just starting out, the population of babies and toddlers swelled, and soon we were all consumed with starting or joining the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery, Little League, PTA, After-School Program, or Youth Center. We were blessed with many other diverse groups – our seniors, business leaders, disabled community, historical buffs, building associations, the library – and the sports – softball, tennis, and soccer.


Many of the grassroots organizations that spontaneously emerged in the 1970s solidified into groups that eventually incorporated as not-for-profit organizations and still exist today. But as we formed these early community groups, we also worked to give voice to Roosevelt Island issues off the Island at multiple levels of the City, State, and Federal governments. The Roosevelt Island Residents Association (RIRA) was organized and became a means through which our community’s voice could be heard in those halls.


In 1976, Sharon Keilin presided over the first, fledgling RIRA organization, published a hand-delivered, stapled RIRA newsletter, and formed separate committees on culture and arts, Island development, youth, sports, and political action. Doesn’t this have a familiar ring? Since there was no Tram until 1976 and no subway until 1989, one of RIRA’s earliest issues was our transportation service. The dependability of Charter Bus #109, which ran six times daily from Roosevelt Island to 59th Street for “commuters,” was of great concern. Islanders hoped the bus driver would wake up in time to remember that he had a scheduled run coming up! Reliable transportation remains one of our big issues today – though on a different scale.


Dignitaries from the other side of the river came to see us – when they could figure out how to get here! Bus, bridge, car, or waterwings? Folks like Percy Sutton, Manhattan Borough President, and Charlie Rangel, U.S. Representative from the 15th New York District, visited Roosevelt Island to meet with their new constituents. We still get our fair share of political attention and many people still wonder how to get to Roosevelt Island.


No discussion of Roosevelt Island’s early days would be complete without mentioning Tony Capobianco, member of RIRA and founder of the Youth Center and the Roosevelt Island Little League. Every spring our Little Leaguers would parade down Main Street in bright uniforms with even brighter faces, ready to play ball on Tony Capobianco Field. Another fond memory of Tony was his ingenious engineering of an impromptu ice-skating rink on an empty field near Motorgate – today the site of PS/IS 217. Unfortunately, this winter tradition, which many residents enjoyed, was stopped a few years later by overly cautious Public Safety officials.


RIRA’s next president after Sharon Keilin was Chuck Kaplan in 1977, followed by Doug Banik from 1978-1979. Doug presided over Tramway shutdowns and operational irregularities, Youth Center governance issues, and threatened (as well as actual) rent strikes. When Lou Carbonetti took the reins in 1980, the drama of filming Sylvester Stallone’s movie, Nighthawks, on Roosevelt Island came to a head at a residents’ meeting where Sly himself appeared! Even more dramatic was watching the movie, and seeing people held hostage on our Tram and a bus go flying into the East River. We are all glad those events didn’t become Roosevelt Island traditions, though our Island has become a popular venue for many movie and TV shoots.


David Lustig, elected to the RIRA presidency in 1981, was key in helping revamp its constitution as our Island grew. A lobbyist by profession and a parliamentarian at heart, he was my predecessor, a good mentor, and very capable of running meetings by Robert’s Rules of Order. Following David’s tenure and after serving on RIRA’s Common Council for two years, I was elected president in 1982 and 1983. During that time, a hotly contested lawsuit restricting traffic on Main Street was settled, Eastwood residents participated in a rent strike, funds were secured to reopen the Youth Center, and we successfully lobbied the State to hire an experienced management company to run the Tram.


One sad night, in 1982, the dome of the Octagon Tower was torched. What helpless despair I felt watching that beautiful, historic structure disintegrate and collapse onto itself. Little did I suspect that the Octagon’s magnificent shape would be resurrected 20 years later as the keystone architectural element of a new housing development!


What were RIRA’s other big issues back then? As mentioned, support for our grassroots organizations was important, and we worked with Community Board 8 for funding for our youth, seniors, and disabled residents programs. Affordable housing was another issue, and there was a constant struggle to maintain the mixed-income fabric of the community against pressures from many sides – and this continues today. Getting a seat at the table where decisions about Roosevelt Island were made was important, so we lobbied hard for representation through a campaign for self-governance. Subsequent RIRA presidents, including Ken Kimbrough-1984, Barbara Fox-1985, and others that followed, also worked on these issues. 


My experience as a community activist in the salad days of Roosevelt Island was educational and inspiring. I learned the power of “We” by working in teams, I learned what it takes to fight for a voice, and I learned what great satisfaction comes from being part of a culture of activism and hope! Though much has changed on Roosevelt Island since 1977, some things have remained – one of them is RIRA. Congratulations to RIRA and to all who participated in community-building. 


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