F to Roosevelt Island

We took the F to Roosevelt Island and found Mae West and Mennonites.

After ascending by escalator from New York City’s deepest subway station, the first things you notice are the killer view of the rushing East River, the gently swinging aerial tramway, the 59th Street Bridge and the blue sky above. You’re feeling groovy.

Then, you turn 180 degrees and your spirit sinks: a Starbucks (455 Main St, 212-371-1298). But Cyrel Toure, a sharply dressed half-Senegalese, half-Guinean man and 13-year “Islander,” says this outpost is different: “Here, people are very nice, and they know what I drink.” (Tall Earl Grey tea, half-full, with four packs of honey.) New York Times–reading English transplant David Rowlands, seated outside, concurs. “At this Starbucks, you can actually get a table,” he says, adding that we should visit the diner just up Main Street, R.I.’s primary (okay, only) thoroughfare.

Photograph: Philip Johnson

Indeed, R.I. is a small town with a long history. From 1686 to 1921, it went by the name of Blackwell’s Island, during which time it was the site of an insane asylum, a smallpox hospital and a prison—notable inmates included Mae West, who did a ten-day bid for writing and starring in a play called Sex. R.I. was renamed Welfare Island in 1921, and the prison closed in 1935. In 1973, Welfare became Roosevelt Island, and the first apartment building opened two years later. Today, the island is home to some 12,000 people, many of them internationals.


Photograph: Philip Johnson

On Rowlands’s advice, we visit Trellis (549 Main St, 212-752-1517)—which, like all small-town diners, serves multiple purposes: eatery, meeting place, bar and nightspot. On Fridays and Saturdays from 6 to 10pm, Trellis hosts “Jazz Under the Stars,” which will be held outside until fall takes a turn for the too chilly. There are tables for alfresco seating on the plaza between the diner and the 1889 Chapel of the Good Shepherd (543 Main St; 212-588-0532), a Teutonic-looking structure similar in some ways to the West Village’s Jefferson Market Library. (Both were designed by storied architect Frederick Clarke Withers.) Back inside, Trellis’s menu includes your standard diner fare—everything from stadium-sized Caesar salads to hefty Philly cheese steaks—served by a garrulous group of waiters with unlikely names (e.g., Eddis Sallas, Obaydull Haq).

Photograph: Philip Johnson

After lunch, we check out a flea market in front of the church and meet textile designer Sally Jenkyn Jones, who suggests we stop by the island’s farmers’ market, located under a gray Motorcade parking garage. Teetering tables of fresh fruit and other produce—peaches, tomatoes, sugarplums, corn, apricots and more—are run by a group of Holdeman Mennonites led by the chinstrap-bearded Israel J. Wengerd. He’s been coming from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, to peddle his father’s (and now his) wares on R.I. since 1988, when he was just 12. “This was always my market,” says Wengerd, “and I found the people to be very friendly.” Marketgoer Sandra Levine, a 31-year Islander and architectural historian, simultaneously lambasts the island’s Gristedes (“the worst in the city”) while praising Wengerd’s comestibles: “The stuff that says home grown on it is really good.”

Photograph: Philip Johnson

As TONY waves goodbye to the Mennonites, we meet Tony Vita, a laid-back graphic designer. We join him on his chosen park bench and ask about his favorite spot on the island. Other than Trellis, he tells us to check out co-op Gallery RIVAA (Roosevelt Island Visual Art Association, 527 Main St; 212-308-6630, rivaa.com).At the time we visited, the Islanders-only gallery was hosting a show of mixed-media paintings, photography and sculpture. Artist Anthony Moran showed us around, and soon we were joined by Arline Jacoby, also in the show. She told us about her art, a series of pottery fired using odd fuels (lemons, grapevines) and intended to raise consciousness about global warming. Coming up, the gallery is hosting its “Fall for the Arts 3” exhibition, another eclectic show produced by 26 Islanders including Moran and Jacoby. It runs through October 12, with an opening reception on October 4 from 6 to 9pm. And we’d be willing to bet that the after-party will continue at—where else?—Trellis.

GO THERE NOW! An alternate way in (or out) of R.I. is the scenic aerial tramway (from Spider-Man!), which costs $2 on a regular MetroCard and takes 4.5 minutes from Manhattan (59th St at Second Ave). The tram runs Sunday–Thursday 6am–2am and Friday and Saturday 6am–3:30am.

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