The History Behind the Roosevelt Island Cherry Blossom Festival

April 28, 2018

A record-breaking 10,000 people strolled the Island’s blooming promenade last Saturday for the seventh annual Cherry Blossom Festival, according to estimates from the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC). 


The spring event is a celebration of Japanese culture and includes a traditional tea ceremony, Japanese food stands, crafts, and music and dance performances by Japanese artists. But the star of the day is the Island itself, thanks to its more than 600 Japanese cherry trees – the largest single collection in New York City, according to RIOC – which explode each spring in showers of pink and white blossoms.

Click photo to enlarge. Photos by Irina Island Images.  


From Gift to Icon


Despite their growing status as an iconic part of the Island, most of our cherry trees are still relatively recent additions. 


According to a 2015 issue of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society’s Blackwell’s Almanac, edited by Bobbie Slonevsky, the first Roosevelt Island cherry trees were a gift from philanthropist Mary Lasker in 1975. A champion of urban beautification, Lasker’s influence can still be felt in many parts of the City. In its 1994 obituary, The New York Times credits her with convincing city planner Robert Moses to plant flowers along the Park Avenue malls, as well as for the flowering trees along the West Side Highway and the cherry trees at the United Nations. 


The original trees lined the east and west promenade where Cornell Tech stands today. Thanks to additions over the years, Japanese cherry trees now circle most of the Island. 


When four of the original cherry trees along the east esplanade had to be removed as a part of Cornell Tech’s construction, the campus originally suggested replacing the trees with another variety. Islanders were outraged. Cornell Tech ultimately subsidized the cost of a new landscaping plan for the east esplanade that included planting dozens of new cherry trees.


Today, Roosevelt Island boasts several varieties of cherry blossoms: the Kwanzan cherry trees with pink blossoms; the Yoshino cherry trees with the lighter, white-pink blossoms and a faint fragrance; and our newest additions, Higan cherry trees, which are non-fragrant featuring pale pink to white flowers.


An Act of Solidarity


The first Roosevelt Island Cherry Blossom Festival took place in 2011 as a fundraising effort following the deadly Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami in Japan, which produced 133-foot waves and traveled up to six miles inland, killing nearly 16,000. 


Organizers expected only 300-400 visitors that first year. The event drew 1,000 and raised $8,400 in assistance for Japan. Additionally, RIOC, the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA), the Roosevelt Island Japanese Association, and the Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association (RIVAA), joined together to dedicate a grove of cherry trees south of the meditation steps to the people of Japan. 


Today, the festival serves as a celebration of the Island’s growing Japanese community.  


“It is a fantastic event to get together once a year, make friends and get connected with the community,” says Sayori Lindholm, a member of the Roosevelt Island Japanese Association and an organizer for the festival. “Often families with small children who don’t attend school yet have fewer connections to other families on Roosevelt Island, especially if they don’t speak English. The festival gives an opportunity to meet the people on the Island and get to know each other.”


Because many Japanese families are only here for a few years before returning home, she says it can be a struggle to find new participants each year to help volunteer or to lead the children’s Yosakoi dance performance. “Every year I have to start with introducing myself and the festival to the new families, and it often takes a while before the word spreads and I get enough people to volunteer.” 


Despite the turnover, though, she sees the Japanese community expanding on the Island. “The Japanese families are in love with Roosevelt Island, so the number of families moving to the Island is increasing every year,” says Lindholm. “By participating in the community event like the Cherry Blossom Festival, it is our way of saying thank you to the community.”


Under the Blossoms


At this year’s Cherry Blossom Festival, Masaru Sato, the Deputy Consulate General of Japan in New York, offered opening remarks. Other featured speakers included New York State Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, New York City Council Member Ben Kallos, and RIOC President Susan Rosenthal. 


Island resident Jim Luce, in full Japanese garb, served as master of ceremonies and interviewed artists between performances. 


Many of the day’s performers had attended previous festivals on the Island, including the RIJA Yosakoi Dancers and Neo Blues Maki, led by vocalist Kayo Yoshioka. But, for Tokyo-based Indie Rock band The Molice, it was a first-time experience. 


“Everybody has great energy and is smiling,” said guitarist Yuzuro of the crowd. “A lot of beautiful cherry blossoms, happy people, and blue sky!”


Event organizer Lydia Tang said she was pleased with the event and that all the Island merchants she’d spoken to reported increased business during the festival. “I think all our food vendors sold out of food, and rumor has it that the Cafe at Cornell Tech did as well.” She also noted that, according to Public Safety, no incidents were reported. 


“My favorite part was that this event brings joy to so many people,” she said. “And it shows the collaborative spirit of so many! Look what we can do as a community when so many of us help out! Not only are we grateful to all our volunteer performers, we are grateful to our sponsors.”


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