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Governors Island, A Place that Matters

Take a five minute ferry ride from downtown Manhattan and visit Governors Island this summer. Or take a five minute trip to the Governors Island Alliance website and vote on the shape of the island’s future.

Although much is happening at Governor’s Island these days, the story of the island in fact begins with the Canarsee Indians who utilized it as a seasonal oyster and nut gathering-ground in the seventeenth century and before. In 1776, when 400 British ships carrying 30,000 troops sailed into the New York harbor, colonial forces on Governors Island shot at them with cannon fire to allow General Washington and his troops time to retreat. Because of its strategic position, the island remained a defensive outpost for the next hundred years, proving so effective that during the War of 1812, the British avoided the New York Harbor altogether, choosing instead to land at the more lightly defended Chesapeake Bay.

In 1909, Wilbur Wright flew an early airplane from Governor’s Island to Grant’s Tomb and back again and in 1916, famous female aviator Ruth Law terminated her record-breaking flight from Chicago to New York on Governor’s Island.

Between the World Wars, the island became home to military officers and their families and was truly a world unto itself, with its own school (P.S. 26), movie theater, and even a golf course.

In April 2002, in a gesture that acknowledged the importance of Governors Island to New York’s history, the Federal Government sold the island to New York City for the sum of one dollar. Now in city hands, the island stands with its historic structures almost wholly intact, the mostly red brick buildings bearing witness to its long and rich history. Of Governors Island’s historical landscape it has been said, “strategically placed military structures – some of the most innovative of their day – survive intact two centuries after their construction. Acres of open space surround the existing structures, five minutes across the water from some of the densest urban development on earth.”

Governors Island is a Place that Matters because it is an intact physical record of a vital part of New York City’s past. Through its topography and its historic buildings which range from a spectacular military fortress to officers’ residences, visitors can read layers upon layers of history, just by stepping off of the ferry. Deed restrictions stipulate that the island stay in public ownership and no private housing is permitted. At a time when the city is under tremendous pressure from private development, Governors Island represents a rare opportunity to take over forty acres of waterfront land, and turn it into “a Central Park for the harbor.”

This has already begun to happen. The Island is now open to visitors from summer to fall, offering “views that typically only the rich can afford… Lady Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge, and the downtown towers of Manhattan” and a walk through the historic district on the Northern portion of the island – a microcosm of the history of New York City itself. The Governors Island Alliance, a civic coalition whose mission is to ensure appropriate redevelopment of the Island, is now hosting an online vote on the plans for Governors Island. Visit their website to learn about the possibilities for the future of Governors Island and to vote on which vision you think is best.