Judy Berdy on Ensuring We are More than an Asterisk in the History Books

In 2007 Judy Berdy, opened the Visitors Center. She used a kiosk that once marked the entrance to the Trolley Station people took to get over the Queensboro Bridge. Now the Roosevelt Island Historical Society's Visitor's Center welcomes 60,000 visitors a year! Berdy herself first visited the Island in 1966 when she worked in the dental clinic at Goldwater Hospital. She was immediately charmed by the Island and moved here eleven years later.

 

Island teens Francine Elisaia and Mark Strong Shinozaki recently sat down with Berdy to discuss how she got interested in Island history in the first place, why it's so important, and the challenges of running a small business here.

 

And the rest they say is history!  

 

The interview is part of an ongoing Time Capsule project spearheaded by 16-year-old Mark Strong Shinozaki in conjunction with the Children, Youth, and Education Committee of the Roosevelt Island Residents’ Association (RIRA). Throughout the year, the group will be interviewing Islanders about their experiences and their hopes for the next 25 years. You can read past interviews here.

 

Francine: Ms. Berdy, please tell us where you grew up and what your childhood was like?

 

Judy: Well, I have one brother who was always three years older than me (smiles). We had a normal happy family with mom, dad and two kids; my mom did not have to work. We were well taken care of. I was born in New York City and I lived here until I was about seven years old when we moved to the city of Caracas in Venezuela. We went to Venezuela because my father had a job there. It’s a lovely country, it’s tropical and it was great. You can go swimming 365 days a year there. I went to elementary school there. I learned Spanish. I returned to Queens, New York for junior high and high school. Then I studied dentistry and I worked in professional offices as a dental assistant for many years. But I changed careers a few times.

 

Francine: What was your father’s job?

 

Judy: My father ran factories; women’s garment factories. He made brassieres and girdles, which were things girls wore in those days, and bras. He was always in the underwear business, what can I tell you...my father always ran private businesses, not big corporations.

 

Mark: How was this move for you from New York City to a foreign country, a place where English was not the main language.

 

Judy: It was ok. My school was American; my teachers were from Texas with a Southern drawl. But it didn’t matter because I was with my family so I wasn’t going alone, I was a little kid. Little kids are very adaptable, much more than grumpy old people who complain about everything (giggles). When you’re you’re seven years old and mom cooks dinner you’re happy.

 

Francine: The following questions are regarding your education. In our research we learned that you studied to become a dental assistant. Please tell us about your interest in dentistry and how far did you pursue these studies?

 

Judy: After graduating High School, I went to a program at NYU School of Dentistry to become a Dental Assistant. It taught me the basics of working in the dental office and I worked in a few private practice offices then I worked for the US Public Health Services at a dental clinic. Then I worked at an insurance company that handled dental insurance. After six or seven years in the dental industry I decided it was time to escape and do something else. I mean dentistry was a nice career that I enjoyed but I wanted to do something else.

 

Mark: Did you have an interest in history at a younger age? And where did your passion for history grow?

 

Judy: I really didn’t have a passion for history at all. I didn’t study history. I liked to travel. When I moved here in 1977, the Island was really new and a lot of people were coming at the same time. There was a minister here, Oliver Chapin, who offered historical tours of the Island. He was the minister at the Episcopal Church, Chapel of the Good Shepherd.

 

I took some of his tours and I was always interested in the Island’s history and was a little active in those years but I was also working full time.

 

After Chapin passed away, I started working to complete some of his projects, and that’s when I really blossomed into this infectious history buff. It’s something that came about naturally. I always liked New York City’s history but Roosevelt Island seemed the perfect fit because it is so small. You can “sorta” know most of its history easily; it’s not like studying the United States. It’s studying 147 acres of history.

 

Top left, Adib Mansour, top right, Mark Strong-Shinozaki. Bottom left, Judy Berdy. Bottom right Francine Elisaia outside the Vistor's Center

 

Mark: When did you move to Roosevelt Island, and where you aware of its rich history at the time?

 

Judy: I first came here in 1966 as part of my dental assistant studies at the Goldwater dental clinic. Everyone else was saying “oh I don’t want to go there” but I loved it! I came for a week and stayed for about six. I liked being out here. In ‘66, there was nothing here; it was desolate, except the two hospitals. I was sorta curious and I watched over the years as they built the Island and the community... and the tram.

 

Francine: Ms. Berdy, please describe Roosevelt Island at the time you moved here, from the perspective of a historian.

 

Judy: By the time I moved here, Westview, Island House, Eastwood [now known as Roosevelt Landings] and Rivercross were built. We had Sloan’s supermarket. The tram was running. Sportspark was here, Motorgate too.

 

But south of Roosevelt Landings was all empty land, except for Goldwater Hospital and some of the landmark buildings. The Octagon was abandoned and the north end of the Island was pretty empty. Manhattan Park wasn’t built yet. It was a nice, fun place with lots of places for the kids to explore; they would go into the old abandoned laundry building which was right across the street from this kiosk.

 

They would go through all the rooms inside the old buildings. The labs still had body parts in laboratory jars – but we won’t discuss that. So the first kids that grew up here loved it because they really could go exploring... they would walk through the steam tunnels along the East River.

 

There were only 5,000 people here so most of us were new and we all came at the same time so we were all “new” together. It was easy because everyone was eager to meet other people.

 

Mark: Where did you live when you first moved here?

 

Judy: I lived at 580 Main Street; I had a lovely apartment with a backyard. When that became expensive – because my income went up, I moved across the street to Island House. The rent was lower in Island House because it wasn’t as connected to your income. Ten years after that I moved to Rivercross.

 

Every single Island apartment was “affordable” when I moved here. There were no apartments then that were priced even at $2000 a month. We all felt secure that we wouldn’t be priced out of the market.

 

Mark: I’d like to ask you, as a follow up, was it a shock to see that apartments that were way less than $2,000 a month, now turned into million dollar apartments?

 

Judy: Yes. It is ridiculous. My apartment was very reasonable; I didn’t need to get a mortgage or take out a loan to pay for it. Now, I could sell it for 20 times what I paid. Middle-income people like me are never going to be able to move in there again; it is sad.

 

One big symptom that something is the matter is that many of our three and four bedroom apartments are now being shared by six, eight, even ten students because families can no longer afford them. It is a shame. This has also lead to a vast overuse of our transportation. To make matters worse, they are not contributing to the community; they’re here to sleep and leave. It’s sad. You want family groups.

 

Francine: What forms of transportation existed at the time for the Roosevelt Islanders? Did the train station exist?

 

Judy: The subway did not open until October of 1989. So we only had the tram, the bridge to Queens and the Q102 bus. When the tram needed repairs back then, the entire system needed to be closed. So they would close down the system for a week or two to do the repairs or change the ropes and buses to the subway in Queens were run.

 

Mark: I was wondering, because it was so new, were people as captivated by the Tram as they are now? And did they come to the Roosevelt Island because they want to see it go back and forth?

 

Judy: There are as many tourists now as we had back then. I run a Visitors Center... all day we have people coming in just because they saw the tram. When the Four Freedoms FDR Park opened, a lot of people came because of the publicity. Whenever we have a lot of publicity, like on July 4, we get a lot of visitors. But we also get a steady number of visitors every day all year round, no matter what the weather is.

 

Francine: Shifting gears a little, your job is very similar to our Time Capsule Project, what do you enjoy the most about preserving Roosevelt Island’s history?

 

Judy: I enjoy meeting people. I enjoy discussing the history. I enjoy solving mysteries with people. I enjoy discovering things. People call me up all the time, email, and come in here and tell us stories of people that have lived here, were hospitalized here, or worked here.

 

The Island is like a 5,000 piece jigsaw puzzle. You’re always putting the pieces together, and the centerpieces are really hard to get; the edges might be easier, but the center pieces are difficult to get.

 

Preserving Island history is important because there are so few resources that cover Roosevelt Island. I always joke that we are like an asterix in books. You can get a book and there will be three lines about us. It is the discovery about the history that is so interesting – the people who made the Island, the people that came long before us, and the people that will come after us.

 

Mark: Ms. Berdy, how did you become part of the historical society and was it always your goal to become the president of the historical society?

 

Judy: Oh I’m stuck being the President. Would you like to be the president, Mark (giggles again)? No, no. It is a small organization. I’m the president but there are several of us that make this happen – there are the wonderful people that do our programming and our special events; there’s the person that writes our newsletters. It is a team effort; not just me.

 

Mark: Please tell us the history of the kiosk and how it ended up where it currently is?

 

Judy: Years ago, a friend and I read in the New York Times that the Brooklyn Children’s Museum were using the kiosk as their entrance and they wanted to get rid of it. Before that, it was the entrance to the Trolley Station people used to take to get over the Queensboro Bridge. We went to Brooklyn and told them, “we’ll take it!”

 

It took four years but we got it! It was literally lifted up off a platform, put onto a truck in Brooklyn, and brought here. Eventually its foundation was built. So really this building is 109 years old; it opened in 1909 as the entrance to the trolley station, on 60th street and second avenue. Its history is really wonderful.

 

When the kiosk was in Manhattan it was surely not as glamorous; it rather looked filthy. Nothing you would write home about. Originally, you got into the kiosk, went downstairs and got in the trolley. Then the trolley got on the lower level road to Queens Plaza. The trolley would then turn around at Queens Plaza and come back. It was 5¢ round trip. 

 

We opened it as a Visitors’ Center in 2007. We had to close it for three years to restore it. It was painted this ugly blue color; it was really yucky. We re-opened in 2010. It’s been the Visitors’ Center ever since and we love it. It has a Guastavino ceiling (a Spanish family designed and made these special tiles for public monuments in Manhattan). The tiles’ acoustics are really good. We also have the original copper windows that were painted over and had to be cleaned. It is really a little landmark, a gem in the city.

 

50 years ago, a building called the Elevator Storehouse was located where the kiosk is now, at the foot of the tram station. It that housed the elevator that came from the Queensboro Bridge.

 

Trolley on the Queensboro Bridge stops at the Elevator Storehouse to take people down to the Island 

 

To get to the Island back then, you would drive or take a trolley car to the Queensboro Bridge’s center point, then take the elevator onto the Island into this large building, the Elevator Storehouse. It operated between 1916 and 1970. It had elevators for people and ones for cars and trucks. They were very slow elevators. All the different floors of the building were warehouses for storage. Trucks would take the elevator to a particular floor, get off the elevator and unload. Then the stuff would be distributed to the different parts of the Island.

 

When we excavated to build the base for the Visitors Center, guess what we found? We found the building, we found the cables, the giant wheels from the elevators, we found the walls; we found everything in this hole. By the time we finished excavating, there were eight huge dumpsters filled with steel, concrete and cables. So if you dig under the lawn,you’d find the rest of the building.

 

Elevator Storehouse Building 

 

Francine: Ms. Berdy, please delve into your vast knowledge of our Island’s history and tell us of any interesting but not so well-known facts.

 

Judy: Well, there was Alberta Hunter, a woman who worked as a nurse at Goldwater even though she was a jazz singer. She liked working here so much that she lived on the Island, she moved here in the 60’s. She didn’t retire from her job until she was 75 years old; then went on to have a good singing career. She was a very well-known jazz singer who lived right here on Main Street like many of us.

 

Other facts? We had our own firehouse, a fire company with horse-drawn fire equipment, and it was here near our current bridge. It was the 49th Company and it was here till around 1959.

 

The fire department training center was here in the 1960’s. When the island was developed they moved to Randall’s Island.

 

Francine: In my research I read that Charles Dickens came to Roosevelt Island.

 

Judy: The plaque outside the kiosk was placed by the Society of Professional Journalists two years ago, because the Octagon didn’t want it. Charles Dickens is a famous British author and in 1842 he came to New York. He visited the Island and he wrote about it in his book American Notes. He saw the asylum and he wrote a very unpleasant review of it. It’s only four pages in his book but he got the hint that was not a good place for the treatment of the patients.

 

Mark: Isn’t it true also that the prisoners worked in the hospital?

 

Judy: The female inmates worked there and they were, quote unquote, nurses – which I’m sure didn’t give the place a five star rating

 

Francine: What about original artifacts. Does the Historical Society have some?

 

Judy: We have some old things that archaeologists just shrugged at. We have artifacts from inside of the Octagon, when it was the Lunatic Asylum. We have some of the carvings from columns. We have some medicine bottles, some medical instruments. We have a book that was found in the wall of the Smallpox Hospital from 1840. We have a surgeon’s set from the lunatic asylum, if you want to do brain surgery. Just a few small artifacts. They’re pretty small.

 

Francine: Are any of them in exhibits?

 

Judy: We do photographic exhibits; we don’t have a permanent exhibition but we do have an office space in the Octagon which is under renovations now, so we’ll be back in the summer.

 

Mark: Please tell us which specific event, fact or person from our history that you enjoy the most?

 

 Nelly Bly, author of Ten Days in a Mad-House about her experiences in the "Lunatic Asylum" on what was then called Welfare Island

 

Judy: I like all the Island’s history. I like Nelly Bly, an American journalist, (widely known for her record-breaking trip around the world in 72 days, more pertinent to us, she did an exposé and worked undercover as a patient at the Lunatic Asylum on the Island to report on a mental institution from within, launching a new kind of investigative journalism). I like history of the good things that happened, I mean not everything here was laden with misery.

 

A lot of people think this was a hellhole! There were places that were pretty bad on the Island but you have to look at the hospitals and the people at the time they lived, not everything was perfect here, but nowhere was perfect if you were poor in the city New York.

 

Mark: Another celebrity I know of is Grandpa Munster. I was wondering if you knew him personally or if you knew how he was perceived on the island?

 

Judy: He lived in the same wing I lived in, in Island House. He smoked his stinky cigars. He was a sexist. He was not a very pleasant person. He lived here with his wife for many years. He would sit in front of 546 Main Street in his beach chair and make lewd remarks to women. What can I tell you... he was a person of the 60s.

 

People say Sarah Jessica Parker lived here but I didn’t know her. Buddy Hacket’s son lived here but I didn’t know him either. We have a lot of judges, we have a lot of very important people in their careers. Kofi Annan lived in Island House, but when I moved into the building he was appointed Secretary General of the United Nations and moved out. He lived here a long time and he commuted on the tram like anyone else.

 

The UN has a lot of people on the Island. The Island had problems renting out apartment in the beginning especially before the tram was built and people were very skeptical. So I think they publicized to a lot of the UN’s employees.

 

Francine: You recently said the RI Historical Society Kiosk welcomes over 60,000 visitors a year from all over the United States and the world. You also said that you offer the visitors Island information, maps, suggestions for spending time here from the FDR Four Freedoms Park to the lighthouse and everywhere in between. We all understand the importance of these services you offer. Please tell us of any struggles you endure and how our community can help.

 

Judy: We do struggle with the big “RI” monument that’s blocking our view, which we did not want, and the community did not want. We do endure some struggles like construction where people can’t find there way here. But we get along great with the RIOC staff; they always make sure our snow is cleaned, our trash is removed and our path is cleared.

 

We take care of our own groundskeeping; we take care of our own plants and flowers with the help of the Roosevelt Island Garden Club. We get along with the bus drivers, which is important. But it is sometimes hard because we are a small business and many of our neighbors don’t shop here.

 

We’re more than a Visitors’ Center. We sell gifts for everyone; you don’t have to be a tourist to shop here, and you’d be supporting the Historical Society. Many people act like it is only a place for visitors so we have to introduce ourselves to residents. It is important to support small businesses.

 

Islanders are not good at supporting local businesses. Most of us are very negligent about going to the stores on Main Street and spending some money but we’re great at complaining about every single one. It is sad because we’re a small town. 

 

Mark: What is your process in getting these beautiful gift items in your store?

 

Judy: We go to the Gift Show at the Javits Center. We went to the Toy Show this weekend. Our magnets are the bestsellers. Our Limited Asylum mug is a very popular item. We have Tram and F train mugs. We have tote bags all custom made for us, for Roosevelt Island. Our new tote bags with a cute map of the Island are very popular. We also have very cute little block sets of all our landmark buildings. People like those.

 

People love our books. We have little books on Franklin Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt.

And of course we have our book Images of America: Roosevelt Island. Over the course of 12 years, you learn what sells and what doesn’t sell. Some people come in here and they look like they’re not going to spend a cent, they walk in with their arms crossed. But they buy our merchandise, they keep us in business, they chat with us.

 

Francine: Can you tell us about your process of writing  your book, Images of America: Roosevelt Island, available at the Kiosk or on Amazon

 

Judy: There were three or four of us and we wrote it as a team; we had a wonderful graphics person and she did all the photographs – in those days the photographs had to be scanned to put on disks. We had a gigantic collection of photos to go through and we had to go through a lot of other resources to get the pictures.

 

We had to go to the Museum of the City of New York, the New York Historical Society, and we had to get permission from many organizations to use their material. Putting the book together seems easy but writing captions and historic descriptions was a lot of work. It took three to four months. The book has been out for 15 years and it is still a hot seller because it is not out of date, only the last chapter has to be edited. It has been reprinted numerous times. Hopefully we will do a follow-up on Roosevelt Island 1969 to 2019.

 

Mark: On your LinkedIn page you mention writing grants to support the goals of the Society. Can you please elaborate on your work, the grants you receive, and your collaboration with other groups.

 

Judy: We work to get two grants a year: one is from the City Council Office which is Ben Kallos. We get grants from them every year. We’ve also been getting Public Purpose Funds. Those grants give us the majority of our income which means we can operate the Visitors’ Center. We do not have volunteers, we have paid staff which makes life much easier. We also get money from our sales; but most of it gets back to the kiosk. You have to pay for this warm feeling you have in here. It is called the Con Ed electric bill.

 

We also work with other historic preservation groups such as Landmarks Group, Historic Districts Council, and a bunch of others to we stay in tune with preservation movements, and what programs we want to have. We also work very closely with our library. It is about networking.

 

Mark: I have a question about the green base in front of the kiosk. I have always been interested in what it was and why is it there.

 

Judy: The kiosk was on second avenue and 60th Street in Manhattan, and next to it was the lamppost base. When they took the tram’s measurements, they said it had to go. There is another lamp exactly like this one on the 59th street side. So, they put it in a storage yard in Queens. It sat in there for 35 years. No one knew. Occasionally somebody would ask “do you anything about that lamp?” “Nope.”

 

There was a program for Open House New Yorka celebration we do every year, and a friend said to me “I think we found that lamppost base.” We went out to Northern Boulevard, where the Home Depot is. Behind it is the New York City Department of Transportation storage yard where they store street lights. Sure enough, sitting there was most of this lamp base.

 

We found out the City of New York owned it. We asked if we could get it. We were told you have to go through the Department of Transportation, then you have to go to the Community Board to see if anyone else wants it. It only took us three years to get it. By the time we got it, a few pieces were missing. We never got the tower that is supposed to rest on top of it. God bless the Tram staff who found a flatbed truck and they had a forklift. We had to hire a contractor to build the base foundation to put it, because it weighs 3,000 lbs. And now it is sitting there, as happy as can be. That’s a typical thing we do here.

 

The smokestack you see besides the tram is the steam plant. It served both hospitals and all the other buildings that were here. They did not make their own heat. They cooked with the steam. Oil would be delivered to the dock, the steam would be made in the steam plant, and there are steam pipes under the east side promenade, through which the steam would be distributed to the buildings. Goldwater hospital had it, Sportspark had it, and all the other buildings along the Island were serviced that way. The Steam Plant closed when Goldwater closed.

 

Coler has its own heating system now.

 

Mark: Do you feel the influx of students on the Island has benefited the Roosevelt Island community or has the influx started to diminish the sense of community that the Island had before the Cornell Campus?

 

Judy: Cornell Tech is fine, I mean they’re here; they’re part of our community. They’re not a big part, but we do work with them. The students are great – when we see them. The students come for one or two years. There are some who get involved, but in general they won’t. They still think that we built a wall... I say, you still have to come north.

 

If you look at Cornell Tech, We are getting a new hotel, a five star hotel, and it will have a restaurant, yay, and we‘re getting a conference center.

 

The only thing I am concerned about is the hotel because hotels breed traffic, vans, cars, and limousine services. I don’t think Cornell Tech is very well planned out for the future.

 

Mark: How did you feel about the major additions to Roosevelt Island over the years such as the Ferry, and the upcoming Southtown buildings and how do you think it will change our demographics and way of life?

 

Judy: Well, I like Goldwater Hospital a lot because I worked there on and off as a volunteer for many years, so I was very sad to see that go. I like the Four Freedoms FDR Park; it is fine, the monument is fine, the park is fine, the staff are very nice. We work with them very well. I love the ferry, it is A+. The new Southtown buildings are fine though the new one will completely block my view of the ferry and the river... so no comment on that.

 

I mean, you really learn to shrug. If I complained about everything that happened here, I would sound like everyone else (giggles). It is our community. It is our life. It is sad to see that middle-income people aren’t moving in and that the Island is becoming very rich. Apartments in my building are completely unaffordable to middle income people. I’m sorry but I came here as a middle income person – or less – and I had a wonderful community and a wonderful life.

 

The new building, 470, is supposed to have a lot of different income levels. We’ll see how that works out. On the other hand, the one we’re not discussing (Southtown building 9), is going to be all luxury. Very high end. The future is going to be... I don’t know what’s going to happen in 25 years. I am going to be old enough to retire by then (big giggle). The red bus will still chug along. We’re still going to complain that the bus didn’t meet the tram.

 

Francine: Why is it so important to you to preserve the history of Roosevelt Island?

 

Judy: It’s all part of the fabric of New York. We have six landmark buildings and they all represent different aspects of our history. We have the medical aspect, we have the penitentiary, we have the workhouse, we have the institutional, we have the lighthouse.

 

New York is a big city and they didn’t know what to do with sick people or people they wanted to punish so they sent them out to different islands. The medical history that happened here is very important. The research that was done here, the people that were treated here is important.

 

It is also very important to recognize the doctors, nurses and hospital staff, the social history of the people who worked here. Not only did you have people who came here as prisoners or hospital patients, you also have the people that lived and raised their children here. The hospital’s warden and the prison warden lived here. The heads of the hospitals lived here with their families; their kids took the trolley car and went to school in Manhattan.

 

It’s always been a vital community. You can’t duplicate this. You can’t tell people it’s just a building... no, it’s the story of people.

 

It was sad to have a penitentiary on the Island but that’s part of our history. Some stayed one year or two, some others came for just a few days then left.

 

Francine: Ms. Berdy, can you tell us a little bit about your previous job as am American Express Travel Agent? In addition, can you please tell us about your travels throughout your life.

 

Judy: Around 1975-76 I became a travel agent; I ended up working for American Express. I love working with business travelers; I enjoyed working with people who hate to travel. They’re much easier to deal with than people going to Disney World. They have to travel... it is a different kind of business. I also did a lot of corporate travel. I did that for nine years at American Express then I decided to change careers at some point and worked for my family business.

 

I love travelling. I love going to Asia, Europe, I’ve gone to Hawaii a few times, I went to Argentina. I love to travel on my own. I don’t like travelling in groups. I like to get out and do something. I don’t want to wait for a bus full of people. I’ve gone to South Africa, Japan and Hongkong. Every trip is different. I love Paris. I could just walk around Paris or London. I’m considering going on a medical history tour of London only because I want to see all those medical sites, old asylums, old hospitals, old operating rooms... I’m weird (giggles).

 

Mark: Adib, Francine, myself, and all the residents of the island thank you for your sincere commitment to our island’s history and your plight to preserve it. Thank you for your time and for allowing us to interview you. You are now in the Time Capsule.

 

Judy: I thank you for your time and efforts. Study hard because you both want good careers.

 

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