Growing Up on a Shifting Island

April 14, 2018

In the spring of 1993, 50 eighth graders had the distinction of being the first class of students to graduate from the Island’s newly built school at 645 Main Street. Previously, students at PS/IS 217 had cycled through a series of “mini-schools” scattered around the Island, each holding just a couple of grades. Finally, the Island’s public school students were all under the same roof, in a modern sun-lit building designed to hold more students than the Island then had.

 

Twenty-five years later, the school building is mostly full and the Island around it has expanded with new buildings, new transit, and a new campus. But for at least a few members of the class of ’93, including Sasha Ross, Alex Slonevsky, Yitza Martinez, and Nina Tandon, the Island is still home – just not quite the same one they once knew.

 

A Refuge 

 

Many in the class of ’93 were part of the first generation of families that moved to the Island in the mid-1970s and early 1980s – their parents calling themselves pioneers in an idealistic master plan to build a thriving mixed-income community in the heart of New York City. The Island was envisioned as a model community and a sanctuary for low- and middle-income New Yorkers, as well as the disabled and senior populations.

 

The students’ families had come because they believed the Island offered them something they couldn’t get elsewhere. For Nina Tandon’s family it was a closer commute to midtown. Alex Slonevsky’s mom wanted to raise him in a place where he could play outside. For Yitza Martinez, their new home offered them much needed safety and stability. For Sasha Ross’ mother, who had been left a quadriplegic by Polio, the move offered independence. Ross’ mother was at Goldwater Hospital prior to there being any residential buildings on the Island, and was the first tenant of 580 Main Street in what is now Roosevelt Landings.

 

It is arguable that none of these origin stories would be possible on today’s Island. According to a 2007 New York Times article, Slonevsky’s mother purchased her three-bedroom Rivercross duplex in 1982 for $30,000, a ridiculous price even then. Today, a similar apartment costs in the neighborhood of $1.3 million. Likewise, many rental apartments that were once set aside for low- and middle-income families have been turned into market-rate units, fetching $3,200 or more per month. 

 

For the members of the class of ’93 who remain on the Island, some of whom are now raising their own families, life here offers both a comfort for the things that remain the same from their childhoods and a poignant reminder of a dream that’s moving increasingly out of reach. 

 

Sash Ross. Photo by Irina Island Images 

 

FDR Day

 

 In 1976, when Ross’ mother moved to Roosevelt Landings, known then as Eastwood, the federally subsidized building reserved units for the elderly and the disabled. Certain apartments were specially designed with wider doorways, lower light switches, and accessible bathroom and kitchen facilities. All of the public and commercial spaces on the Island followed suit. People in wheelchairs were part of the Island’s fabric. 

 

“When my mother had me, my grandmother would commute to the Island from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, daily to help her take care of me,” says Ross. When her mother passed away in 1984, she left to live with her grandmother in Brooklyn. “Even after we moved, we still came to visit the Island so often that I almost don’t remember the move here at all.” Later, when her family sold the three-family house they shared, two-thirds of the group moved to Staten Island; Ross and her grandmother moved to Roosevelt Island. “After couch hopping for almost a year, we were able to secure a studio apartment in 540 Main Street.”

 

Ross recalls the disabled population being a more celebrated part of the community back then. In fact, Roosevelt Island Day was called FDR Day. 

 

“It was the event of the year,” says Ross. “It started very early in the morning and, as the day went on, everyone would migrate towards the Lighthouse, where an epic barbecue would commence. I have memories of babies, toddlers, and children all asleep on blankets spread out on the grass, while the adults hung out, without a care in the world. 

 

“Back then Coler had an amazing basketball league, of men in wheelchairs. Most of the Island turned out for their events. Man, were they amazing. It was truly an experience, music going, people laughing, kids running around like crazy on the baseball field, and lots of beer.”

 

Today, Goldwater Hospital, where Ross’s mother once lived, is gone, with a portion of its long-term patients transferred to Coler Hospital to the north and the rest to Henry J. Carter Specialty Hospital in Harlem. And they are quickly disappearing from the rest of the Island as well. The number of disabled residents living in Roosevelt Landings decreased from 200 in 2005 to just 70 in 2007. Now, when a senior or disabled person in Roosevelt Landings vacates their apartment, it doesn’t go to another senior or disabled person in need; instead it is remodeled and becomes a market rate unit.

 

 

Alex Slonevsky

 

A Place for Kids

 

 According to ’93 graduate Alex Slonevsky, his family moved to the Island in 1982 after his mother woke up in a panic one night wondering where in their West Village neighborhood he would be able to play outside. The family moved to a three-bedroom Rivercross apartment, ultimately giving Slonevsky a younger sister. 

 

Today, he and his wife, Island native Zita Body Slonevsky, live with his mom and their son Niko in that same apartment. 

 

Slonevsky says he hadn’t planned on living on the Island as an adult. In fact, he and his wife bought a house in Hudson, New York, in 2015 to escape the frenetic nature of the city. The couple started renovation of their house about a year ago and needed a place to live in the meantime. 

 

“As we were doing that,” Slonevsky says, “we realized that the Island is perfect for Niko. There are a million kids here. It’s such a great set up for him. He loves it so much.” He says they are re-experiencing a lot of their own childhood memories through their son, who has a friend on their floor, and that new kids are moving into the building all the time.  

 

It’s a welcome change from about ten years ago, when Slonevsky says the Island was losing families. “That was missing. In the beginning, you knew everybody by face, if not by name. Then, later on, there were no kids. Now, part of the reason that the Island is good for kids again is because there are now so many kids.” 

 

Their son currently attends the Roosevelt Island Day Nursery. “I would love to send my son to 217,” he says. In fact, because of their son’s experience here, the couple has changed their plans and are selling their house, without ever having lived in it. 

 

“Maybe we will try to buy a place on the Island. We want to stay on the Island for our son.”

 

Yitza Martinez. Photo by Irina Island Images

 

Community

 

 The five-building Manhattan Park complex, known then as Northtown II, opened in 1989 with 884 market-rate units and 223 subsidized units under the Federal Section 8 program. 

 

PS/IS 217 graduate Yitza Martinez, along with her mother and younger siblings, was one of the first tenants in 4 River Road in March of 1989. 

 

Before moving to Roosevelt Island, Martinez’s family was homeless. “My family hopped from home to home crashing in friends’ living rooms or vacant basements,” she says. “My mother was offered an apartment on Roosevelt Island and, being [under] the circumstances, she accepted it.”

 

For Martinez, the close-knit community she found on Roosevelt Island is what keeps her here after all these years. “I had children and I could not think of a better, safer place to raise them. A place where, even though I did not have other family members, it felt like I did. My neighbors became family.” She appreciates the Island’s activities and the exposure to different ethnicities and cultures within the community. “I have loved making friendships with people from all over the world.”

 

Martinez worries, though, that the Island, as it’s grown more populous by the thousands, is losing that closeness. 

 

“Too many new buildings take away the small-town feeling.” She estimates that about 30% of the tenants in her building, 4 River Road, are original 1989 tenants, but says, “they are slowly moving away, running away from the electricity bills.”

 

Ross, too, worries that the sense of community has been lost over the last 25 years. 

 

“I had my second child ten years after my first, and that is when I started noticing how much the Island had changed,” says Ross. “The convenience was still there; it was still a very safe place to live and raise a family, but the feeling was changing: less space, more people. Things no longer felt easy, the city life that we once had to travel to was now playing out right outside of the buildings. People were more hurried, Main Street wasn’t as lively and it became less friendly.” 

 

New market-rate apartment buildings on the Island have also contributed to higher resident turnover as families get priced out by rising rents – taking with them a sense of shared history, and a shared mission of making a community together, an impossibility when you can’t predict how much your rent will be raised every year. Much of the newer housing that has been designated as affordable is set aside for medical or international families who are here on two- or four-year contracts before moving on.

 

“None of my children ever met my mother, and my two youngest never met my grandmother but, because of the Island, they know them by extension,” says Ross. “When my mother’s friends tell them stories of how my mother was and what she looked like, where else am I going to get that? I didn’t get the chance to know my mother very well, but because of her time on Roosevelt Island and her friends that are still here, I feel as though I really know her. My grandmother passed away almost 12 years ago, and not a week goes by that I don’t have multiple conversations about her. People will joke that my daughter is my grandmother because they are so very much alike. I am scared of losing that very small piece of the Island that I hold so very dear.”

 

She says, “If I could change one thing about Roosevelt Island, it would, hands down, be bringing it back to family. Let’s go back to the time where everyone felt supported by the neighborhood.”

 

Nina Tandon. Photo by Irina Island Images

 

A Sense of Place

 

 Biomedical engineer Nina Tandon served as the valedictorian for the 1993 class. Today she lives in a Rivercross apartment with her husband, Noah Keating. 

 

She jokingly refers to her stint as valedictorian as “the pinnacle of my academic accolades,” though certainly there have been plenty since. With two advanced degrees from Columbia University – a doctorate and postdoc in stem cells and tissue engineering and an Executive MBA in healthcare entrepreneurship, Tandon is currently the CEO and co-founder of the Brooklyn based start-up EpiBone, which grows bones and cartilage from stem cells. 

 

Ten years ago, while still a graduate student, Tandon won the opportunity to purchase a Rivercross studio through the lottery, before the building went private. 

 

“I really did feel like I had won the lottery,”she says. “Through that process, I decided to make my permanent home here. I feel really lucky to live in the zip code where I grew up. There is something special about that.” 

 

Tandon describes a lot of running around as a kid. “We used to play outside a lot. We would play games and man-hunt. As long as you stayed on the Island you were good. It became this playground; you knew everyone and knew people’s families. When I got older, [my older sister] Sheila and I became babysitters. I knew everyone because I either babysat for their kids or their kids babysat me.”

 

On a deeper level, Tandon says, the Island gave her a place to be from. “A lot of people from New York don’t necessarily have circumscribed boundaries; the Island gave us a real place to be from, and a deep sense of community ties.” 

 

She says the Roosevelt Island connection has been valuable in her work life, too. “With my startup, whether it is investors of mine that have connections to this community or one degree of separation, it is an instantaneous point of communication. What year? When did they graduate from eighth grade? It’s beautiful and it’s rare; it’s special.”

 

But Tandon acknowledges that the changing economics of the Island have had an impact. She believes we should prioritize keeping the Island affordable, both for those who are already here, and newcomers. “I would love to see us keep the Island affordable for those who want to build community with us who see the good things and want to keep them going.” She believes that it is the obligation of the longtime Islanders to ensure what she calls, “continuity in the community.” 

 

“I am glad to be one of the townies,” she says. “We can bridge gentrification with new people and serve as the town elders so that, on the cusp of all of this change, we can do it the right way.” She says she is excited for the years ahead. “I have faith in my neighbors. I know my community cares enough to show up for the town hall meetings and advocate.

 

“Roosevelt Island never leaves people.”

 

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