Our History, Lost

January 6, 2018

For years, a small corner in the back of our local library branch has held a little-known treasury of our Island’s history: a painstakingly preserved collection of original documents and early newspapers – some the only known copy. These documents, archived by the Roosevelt Island Historical Society and Roosevelt Island Community Library, and trustingly donated to the New York Public Library (along with 30,000 books), tell the story of our Island’s shift to a residential community. 


The collection included every newspaper clipping about the Island; complete issues of the community’s first newspapers, The Roosevelt i and the Island View; as well as early issues of The Main Street WIRE for which there are no digital copies. 


Two weeks ago, the entire collection was discarded. 


 The lost collection included the very first issue of The WIRE. 


As someone who has spent hours pouring over these fascinating records of our past, I have a keen and painful understanding of what we’ve lost. Many of the voices of the Island’s earliest pioneers spoke in these papers, helping understand why we are where we are today, how their early challenges shaped the community’s evolution.


In those lost pages were stories about coming to a brand new community, called the “New Town in Town,” that promised a lot but offered no services yet. There were stories documenting very early Island retail, the first efforts to govern, and the first committees. There were stories about parents’ desire to find enrichment and care for their children and how those desires resulted in the creation of Island institutions like the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery, Island Kids, and the Roosevelt Island Youth Program. 


What I find most tragic about this loss is that it was done in an effort to make room for the new Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt Collection, created with money donated by RICLA, the very group whose earlier members had the foresight to collect and collate some of these original papers. Branch manager Carlos Chavez says he cleared out the space so he could put graphic novels in that corner, and have the Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt Collection displayed where the graphic novels now reside. 


In my five years with The WIRE, I have frequently relied on those old papers to check facts, gain perspective, and get context. In the past, I’ve even asked if I could bring some of it home to scan. The librarians always told me no; it was reference material and couldn’t be checked out. Now it is all gone. 


For some of this material, the library had the only copies. So I put the question to you. Do any Islanders have a pre-1996 collection of Island newspapers, including the RIRA newsletters from the 1970s, The Roosevelt i, The Island View, and the Main Street WIRE, or clippings about the Island that appeared elsewhere. Let’s try to rebuild our history. Email me at Briana@mainstreetwire.com



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