Losing Our Sledding Hill, One Sledder's Lament

December 17, 2018

Roosevelt Island just got its own wall. A dark green wall complete with electronic security turnstiles has been erected around the Island’s beloved sledding hill, which is now slated for the construction of the long awaited Building 8, a new residential building being erected by Hudson Related.


 On the other side of the wall is the construction site for Southtown building 8


I peered through the turnstiles in the rain this morning, wondering what could warrant such high security. In front of the temporary building that was used as a construction office during the building of 480 Main Street sat a small junk pile complete with an odd assortment of items, including all or part of a Christmas tree. The pile of neglected things seemed a bitter metaphor for the changes that are sweeping over Roosevelt Island in waves, leaving the Island we once new in a state of disrepair.


Hard not to think of prison when you look at this wall. Hard not to think of how we locals would sprawl out over this swath of hill dropping down to the river on the Queens side, taking on the snow and the weather, feeling the cold bite our cheeks. It’s hard not to think of those rosy cheeks as the bucolic flakes tumbled out of the sky. The way life would find other life in the dead of winter, donned in ski pants and puffy parkas and animal face hats and mittens. Any mittens that could be found.


 Sledding on the east side of the Island in what is now a construction zone


Every year when it snows Island families have flocked to this hill to revel in wintertime fun. All manner of sleds get unearthed from closets and beneath beds, hard plastic toboggans and round discs and also foam and inflatable ones, the dust blown off and tucked under a well bundled arm and carried up or down Main Street to the top of the hill. A nice straight steep descent shoots to the river and the deteriorating iron wall, facing Queens on the other side. The wall all along the east side of the Island is now under reconstruction, and new wooden scaffolding has been constructed blocking the entire sidewalk and hill from pedestrians.


The first snowfall of the year would invariably be accompanied by listings on the Parent’s Network listserve and on the RI Parent’s Facebook page of parents in search of snow worthy clothes for their day of winter fun.


But the iconic wintertime scene imbued with fun and adventure is suddenly a thing of the past.

It is a palpable blow to our carefree lifestyle, where the best of city life found the best of rural life: a romp in the snow with ferry boats plying the still river, the Ed Koch Queensborough bridge spanning the Island twinkling in the fast fading light.


The hill started at Main Street and went straight down towards the seawall, currently much of that area of the seawall is fenced off due to seawall replacement


Last year, after the new Cornell Tech campus opened, people started to flock to the big hill they landscaped at the center of the campus. While that hill dumps out onto the sidewalk abutting Loop Road, the motor vehicles are so far sparse.


My son and I checked it out after a light dusting last winter. We enjoyed ourselves. There was only one other family there. We hadn’t gotten the memo that we were not allowed to sled there, according personnel at Cornell.


On the previous snow, families had been chased off the hill. The day we were there, however, no one bothered us. A spokesperson for Cornell Tech stated at a RIRA meeting last February that sledding would be allowed once the newly laid sod had a chance to take root, in 12 to 18 months, it was surmised. But this year, there have been small evergreens planted around the hill – an obvious deterrent to would-be sledders. They don’t look pretty or well planned and are not particularly healthy.


Cornell Tech released the following statement regarding the hill, "For your safety, Cornell Tech asks that you not use the hills on campus for sledding.”


While it’s been many days since that one first snowfall before Thanksgiving, and there is none forecast for the immediate future, Island families are starting to get a bleak picture of life beyond the holidays, when the snow starts to come down in earnest and children have nowhere to go sledding. Sledding is a wonderful way to get outside in wintertime, have some fun, get some exercise and breathe lots of fresh air. I’m already pining for those days when we dress in our snowboarding clothes, in layers, with wool socks and neck warmers, and trudge outside for some fun tumbles down the hill on our slick plastic slider bought a few years back for twenty bucks or so and stored under the bed in the off seasons ever since.


I spent part of my childhood in the city and part of it in the country, and sledding was a fixture of life in both places. When we lived on the Upper West Side, on 101 st street and West End Avenue, we used to get wild with our Radio Flyers at Riverside Park. Belly down, the slick metal blades quickly picked up speed.


One year my older brother lost control of his sled and split his forehead open on a park bench.

Those were the days when we took our chances with childhood and with life – sometimes people got hurt – but we recovered and we were better off for our time spent tapping into our instincts, our animal natures, our wildness. We sat a little straighter in class because we got to be free on the weekends.


These days, if a child climbs a cherry tree they are likely to be approached by a Public Safety officer.


 After a large snowfall this past March, a group of kids made an igloo on the Octagon Soccer Field, another community space that is fenced off, with no work having started.


We prize our green spaces, but we’re not really supposed to use them. And it seems our green spaces are becoming few and far between. There’s also a big green wall at the Lighthouse Park, which has been up since early last spring, despite little signs of actual work being done. The temporary fencing along the river wall on the east side has also been up for months and months without much sign of work or progress. The walls around Blackwell House were removed before the Tree Lighting Ceremony.


Why again were those walls there in the first place? And there’s a new green wall up around 504 Main Street, the site of the new library which is under construction. And the Youth Center, at the same site, with it’s windows papered up, shows no signs of being renovated. The Riverwalk Bar and Grill, which shut down without notice in early September, remains dark nearly 4 months later.


Sometimes waiting for things to happen around here is like Waiting for Godot. One thing’s for sure, though, if we want to sled, it won’t do to wait for an invitation. Through time immemorial, no one ever said, “Kids, we want you to sled here. We don’t care if you break your necks.” But did that stop anyone from doing it? No!


There was very briefly an ice skating rink across the street from Motorgate where 2-4 River Road now stands, prior to PS/IS 217 or Manhattan Park's arrival


Or maybe, since Cornell doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do with that hill, maybe we could lobby them to put an ice skating rink there in the winter time. It would be a win win, because, of course, everyone will have to sign a disclaimer before they get on the ice. No one gets sued. And everybody wins.


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