Islands Abound

Other than Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx, which are all part of a larger land mass, everything else in the NY Metro area is an island. The borough of Manhattan included! In fact there are many more islands than boroughs in New York City. To me, it’s what makes the city and its surrounds all that more interesting and has also recently spurred my interest in and fascination for bridges.

While some of these were covered in my last blog, we travel north today from Queens into the Bronx via Randall’s Island, then back into Manhattan ending at Roosevelt Island. This also effectively serves in documenting my first cycling trip this summer.

The Triborough Bridge is one of 12 major bridges in the New York area which connect the boroughs with each other and with New Jersey. As the name suggests, this one connects 3 of those boroughs. The through route connects Northern Queens with South Bronx with a spur taking of from Randall’s Island into Manhattan’s 125th street.

John and I meet at the middle of the Triborough Bridge bike path which conveniently runs on the eastern flank of the bridge. I say convenient because the Hells Gate Bridge carrying Amtrak trains (and the occasional freight!) is located east of the Triborough and the views from the bridge are a rail fan’s delight.

Hells Gate refers to the narrow strait on the East River which separates Northern Queens from Randall’s Island. It is so named because of the strong currents in those parts. The Hells Gate Bridge was built in 1916 and at the time was considered the world’s longest steel arch bridge. It was to be the inspiration for the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia, built 16 years later.

After having our fill of watching trains, we make our way down into Randall’s Island. Administratively both Randall’s and Roosevelt Island are under the borough of Manhattan. While Roosevelt Island has a sizeable population living on it, Randall’s Island is more of a sports and recreational park – although few Manhattanites are aware of this fact. The few from Manhattan that know about it are probably only aware of its all season golf driving range (1 of 2 driving ranges in Manhattan) and the Icahn Track & Field Stadium which sees action more as a concert venue than anything else. Amongst other things, Randall’s Island is also home to the NY Fire Department’s training academy.

The rest of the space on the island is occupied by trails and green ways (biking paths), large expanses of picnic and barbecue areas by the waterfront, tennis and basketball courts and fields (the rumoured count is 65!) for every conceivable sport including, believe it or not, cricket!

Sandwiched between 3 boroughs, with the Harlem river flowing to its west, the Bronx Kill (Dutch word for water channel) to its north, the Hell’s Gate to it’s east and the East River to its south, the island affords some great vistas from it’s many vantage points.

Back on the Triborough Bridge, we continue cycling north into the Bronx and under the Bruckner Expressway following the Amtrak right of way. It’s been a hot and sticky day and the extra detour into the Bronx, although unplanned, seems worth it when we arrive at Hunts Point Yard to see some more rail action set against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.

We get some late lunch to go, load our bikes on to the 6 train and work our way down to Manhattan’s 59th street. Getting back to ground level we cycle a few blocks east to load our bikes yet again – this time onto the Roosevelt Island Tramway.

Technically it’s just a Cable Car but in the US they insist on doing it differently! Although the island is connected today by the F subway line as also a road lift bridge from the Queens side (providing public bus service into the Island) the cable Car continues to operate as one of the few remaining aerial commuter tramways in North America. It was built in 1976 as a form of temporary transportation to the island. Its immense popularity amongst island residents and visitors alike has ensured its continuous operation. Never mind the skyscrapers of Manhattan, if your looking for an exhilarating view with a difference, this is it. For the price of a single subway journey (metro cards accepted here!), this ride is hard to beat and should not be missed when visiting the city.

Today the island is spanned by high rises and is home to over ten thousand residents. But its history is long and interesting. Not only has it gone through several name changes but it has also, over the years, served different purposes. Its residential avatar being its most recent. It has housed hospitals, mental asylums and even a state penitentiary (prison) in the past. While the penitentiary has moved to Rikers Island near Queens and the asylum done away with, some hospitals still remain. And the southernmost part of the island is still, mysteriously, out of bounds. Some reports say there is an abandoned small pox hospital there.

We cycle a few minutes along the promenade and find a spot on the green, under the shade, to park our bikes and eat our sandwiches. The hustle and bustle of Manhattan is across the river from us and while that provides the perfect view, our spot, as with most others on this island, is peaceful, pretty, quiet and completely devoid of traffic.

The island measures 2 miles in length and a quarter mile in width and with a thoughtfully planned promenade encircling it, provides the perfect setting for cycling, running or strolling. As with Randall’s Island, this one to has an abundance of sport facilities and recreation areas (mostly for its residents) with views to boot! Truly a city within a city – without the traffic and noise that is!

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