Randall’s Island, situated at the center of New York City, has become the park and recreational mecca long dreamed about.
By Jane Margolies
It’s a sunny afternoon in May, and lacrosse games are in full swing on Randall’s Island, a 516-acre landmass surrounded by water and, beyond, the New York City boroughs of Manhattan, Queens, and the Bronx. Cyclists pedal on a path under the heroic arches of a 1917 railroad trestle. A middle school track team is warming up outside the stadium where Usain Bolt broke the world record in the men’s 100-meter dash in 2008.
The landscape architect Rick Parisi, FASLA, and I are not playing lacrosse or cycling or running. But we are roving around the island—which is bordered by the Harlem and East Rivers, the Bronx Kill, and a treacherous strait known as the Hell Gate. Parisi, the managing principal of MPFP, has helped with the transformation of the island over the past couple of decades, and I’ve asked for a tour of some of his firm’s accomplishments. Besides, I have a special request:
“Show me where the bodies are buried.”
New York, of course, is a metropolis built on islands. Of the five boroughs that make up the city, four are on islands. But in addition to those sizable islands, there’s a smattering of smaller ones, too—Ellis Island, the historic portal for immigrants, perhaps the most famous, and Rikers Island, the site of the long-troubled jail complex, the most infamous. For much of New York’s history, many of the smaller islands have provided the city with out-of-the-way places where it could park problematic populations or infrastructure.
However, unlike, say, Roosevelt Island—once the site of a notorious insane asylum that the 19th-century newspaper reporter Nellie Bly wrote about in an undercover exposé (feigning madness to get herself admitted as a patient), since redeveloped with apartment buildings, parks, and a soon-to-be-completed outpost of Cornell University—Randall’s Island not only had its share of so-called undesirables, but it still does. One of the city’s first wastewater treatment plants is here, and there’s a state psychiatric hospital in a looming complex of buildings, plus a large men’s shelter, among other institutions. At one time the island was also home to potter’s fields—hence my appeal to Parisi.
And yet it’s mostly mapped parkland. The 20th-century master planner Robert Moses tried to make Randall’s Island more parklike and less institutional, but he was only partially successful. The effort revived in 1992, when a nonprofit organization then known as the Randall’s Island Sports Foundation and now called the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA) was formed. The group began working with the parks department and other city agencies to overhaul the island and has completed capital projects totaling more than $250 million from city, state, federal, and private sources—with $43 million more in the works.
They’ve been aided not only by MPFP but a whole cast of local landscape architecture firms, including Mathews Nielsen, Starr Whitehouse, and Quennell Rothschild & Partners. These firms have written master plans and designed biking and pedestrian paths. And then there are the more than five dozen fields for baseball and soccer laid out by Parisi’s firm—like one on the southern tip of the island he and I pass, where someone scores and a burst of cheers and clapping erupts.
The island had quieter beginnings. It was actually two islands when Native Americans fished and hunted in these parts. From the 17th century on, control passed from the Dutch (the governor general of what was then called New Netherland farmed on the southern island) to the British (who used it to scout sites for invasions of Manhattan) to the colonists (George Washington established a smallpox quarantine on the northern island). Eventually one Jonathan Randel purchased the northern landmass, though as a result of a misspelling on the deed it became Randall’s Island. The island to the south was eventually named Wards Island, also after onetime owners. By the 19th century both islands were the property of the City of New York—which valued them because they were close to the mainland, but, because of the intervening waterways, not too close.
First came the potter’s fields, initially the repository for bodies dug up from graves in Manhattan’s Bryant Park and Madison Square Park. Then the institutions arrived, including the Inebriate Asylum and the Idiot Asylum (city leaders then apparently not prone to mincing words). Conditions were so horrific at the so-called House of Refuge—a reformatory where juvenile delinquents and vagrant youth were thrown together, forced to cane chairs and make shoes for outside contractors, and hung up by their thumbs if they misbehaved—that newspapers contained reports of inmates trying to escape. Some drowned in the process.
In the early 20th century, the central location of the islands prompted their use as stepping-stones for transportation infrastructure, connecting them with the surrounding boroughs. The railroad trestle was erected along the east side of the islands, giving them a series of glorious supporting arches that call to mind a Roman aqueduct. (Amtrak trains now rumble across the tracks on top.) In 1929, the Triborough Bridge—actually a complex of three bridges connecting Manhattan, the Bronx, and Queens (and recently renamed the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge)—was begun, and by 1936 its support arches marched along the western side of the islands; off-ramps made the islands accessible to motorists.
By the time the Triborough opened, Moses—who, in addition to heading what was then the Triborough Bridge Authority (TBA), which completed the bridge, was also the parks commissioner—had gotten the city to transfer the islands to the parks department. He cleared Randall’s of institutions and laid out ball fields and tennis courts and built a massive 22,000-seat poured-concrete stadium in the style of the Roman Colosseum. It was here that Jesse Owens won the 100-yard dash in the 1936 Olympic Track & Field Trials en route to his triumph at the Berlin games. It was also in this stadium, in 1938, that Count Basie and Benny Goodman performed in what’s considered the first outdoor jazz festival (and, decades later, Jimi Hendrix, Joe Cocker, and Steppenwolf would play). Moses also built a deco-style administrative building for the TBA from which he oversaw his many fiefdoms.
But Wards Island was his Waterloo. His elaborate park plans for it included a 400-foot “coasting hill,” but he was never able to banish all the institutions there to make his vision a reality. Moses did unite the island with Randall’s, dumping fill from construction projects in the channel between the two and closing it up. And he also added fill on the northern and northeast edges, annexing a marshy area evocatively named Sunken Meadow and ultimately adding dozens of acres of parkland to form a single landmass shaped like an ear.
But as New York slid into decline in the 1970s, Randall’s, too, declined. Watch the final scenes of The French Connection, filmed on the island, for a sense of the general decay. The parks department did expand garage and repair facilities on the island that served agency sites citywide. But in 1975, when the Brazilian soccer star Pelé made his American debut with the New York Cosmos in what was by then named Downing Stadium, the field had so little grass that it reportedly had to be spray-painted green to make it look respectable for the game.
Randall’s was a no-man’s-land by the 1990s. Poison ivy cloaked dead trees, and the island was pocked with mountains of rubble. Supermarket carts and other detritus lay scattered around. Roads ran every which way and then petered out, marking the sites where buildings once stood. Undergrowth was thick. The homeless had set up encampments.
Various city agencies had squatted, too. The sanitation department had staked out a spot where employees learned to use snow plows, pushing earth around in a simulation of the skills they would need to master by winter. The fire department ran a training academy where they practiced putting out fires and maneuvering engines. Almost everyone interviewed for this article characterized the island at this time as “the Wild, Wild West.”
Enter Karen Cohen, a former interior designer with children in private schools that held games on the island’s then-rutted fields. (Many New York City schools—public and private—lack outdoor sports facilities.) Watching her kids play, Cohen conceived the idea of upgrading the fields and turning the island into a sports mecca. She had zero park experience, but she was willing to donate her own money to the cause and to use her considerable connections to convince other heavy hitters—such as Andrew Tisch, a cochair of the Loews Corporation, and Michael Bloomberg, Honorary ASLA, the media mogul and philanthropist who would become mayor of New York in 2001—to join the foundation’s board. She made the rounds armed with an oversize map of Randall’s Island glued atop a sturdy board and a kit containing little models of possible new features for the island—a marina, a driving range, a pool, and more—that could be moved around the map.
Aimee Boden, a can-do parks official who was assigned to work with Cohen, knew it wasn’t going to be so easy. Still, says Boden, who’d had previous experience working on projects that required raising private monies, Cohen’s focus on improving athletic offerings was “conducive to outdoor park development” and “meant we had to upgrade the basic infrastructure on the island.” And, besides, public–private partnerships were gaining traction as parks department budgets shrank. The foundation modeled itself on the Central Park Conservancy, and its efforts reflected both the huge public benefits to be had from such partnerships as well as the drawbacks.
Although improving fields was the foundation’s initial thrust, just getting to the island—and getting around once you were there—was a priority, especially considering that many New Yorkers do not own cars. The private school children were transported to the island via jitneys. For everyone else, there was the M35, a bus that ran infrequently and made few stops. There were pedestrian ramps on the Triborough, but only a single pedestrian bridge, from Harlem to the southern end of the island.
The foundation—partnering with the city’s economic development agency, which has had a hand in many of the capital projects on the island—hired RG Roesch Architecture & Landscape Architecture (now RGR Landscape) to brainstorm ways to make it easier to get to, and around, the island by foot and bike. Completed in 1996, the Randall’s Island Access Plan mapped out, among other things, a walking/cycling loop around the island. The firm also did the construction documents for the crucial first one-mile segment of the path system, from the pedestrian bridge to the stadium, encompassing a gravel walkway down along the Harlem River and an asphalt path at a higher elevation for cyclists. Although it would take many years for the land to be cleared and the path system built—and require the repair of the crumbling seawall as well as negotiations with the state hospital to coax it to pull back its chain-link fence from the water’s edge—this stretch has become one of the loveliest parts of the island, providing open views of Manhattan and weaving through decades-old Norway maples and by newly planted perennial beds fragrant with lavender.
But back in the 1990s, the big question was how to make the entire island “look, feel, and smell like a park,” in Boden’s words, “given the reality that it’s home to a lot of other things.” A team that included Quennell Rothschild, Signe Nielsen Landscape Architects (as Nielsen’s firm was then called), and the architecture firm then named Gwathmey Siegel & Associates took a swing at a master plan, released in 1999, which incorporated recommendations from the Access Plan. It was short on details but laid out the foundation’s vision of a sports-focused destination dotted by privately operated athletic facilities including indoor ice skating rinks, a games center, a tennis center, a water park, and a new track and field stadium, plus an amphitheater for concerts. The idea was to use the revenue from the private facilities to pay for the renovation and maintenance of Randall’s Island Park.
It fell to Parisi and Ricardo Zurita, an architect who partnered with MPFP on this and subsequent projects on the island, to help figure out whether it would all work. Their involvement began in a modest way, with two small feasibility studies. The first study related to the siting of a new track and field stadium—the multipurpose Downing, deemed too big and too difficult to renovate to comply with international track and field requirements, was demolished. Should the new stadium go at the northern end of the island, where the master plan had it, between the Triborough’s span to the Bronx and the railroad trestle? The “two Ricks,” as the designers were called, determined that a stadium wouldn’t actually fit there, and ultimately decided that the best place for the stadium was where the old one was—almost.
Downing had been tucked into mounded-up earth, with a row of oaks on top that had been part of Moses’s entry sequence. When the building came down, what was left was a curved, tree-topped berm that could not be moved because it held inside of it electrical conduits that lit up the Upper East Side. To Parisi, the earth form was “quite a nice feature.” Yet if the new, smaller stadium was built inside it, the view to Manhattan from the stands would be blocked—and, just as significantly for those who sought to show that exciting things were happening on the island, the stadium would be hidden from view when Randall’s was seen from Manhattan. The solution was to shift the new stadium slightly to the south, opening it up to the view, and to snuggle inside the sweep of the berm the island’s first new soccer pitch. Made with synthetic turf and lighted so that it could be played on at night, it was not only the island’s first new field, it was its “premier” field, on which, if you were a high school player and your team made it to citywide tournament finals, you’d get to strut your stuff.
As for the stadium, an open-sided 5,000-seat affair designed by Zurita, RIPA was still fund-raising for it when construction commenced—“a risk,” Boden admits. Money ran out before the roof could be built. Adrian Benepe, Honorary ASLA, now the head of the Trust for Public Land but at the time the city’s parks commissioner under Mayor Bloomberg (and a former high school runner), helped put RIPA in touch with Carl Icahn. The investor forked over the final $10 million on the condition that the stadium be named after him. Although many were none too pleased that “Icahn Stadium” was emblazoned in eight-foot letters on the roof, Benepe, who, like Bloomberg, has been a proponent of public–private partnerships, was unapologetic in a recent interview. “I wanted people to see that and know there were sponsorship opportunities on the island,” he said.
After the stadium project, Parisi was given the job of laying out fields for the island—a field production project on a scale never attempted before in the United States, according to a turf expert, Frank Rossi. “When we hit 55 fields, they said they wanted 65,” recalls Parisi. “Every time we added a high school size field, they said, ‘We need four full-size fields.’” And with every field MPFP laid out, it came up with construction cost estimates and maintenance cost estimates “so everyone could understand what a field would cost if it was turf, if it was synthetic, and weigh the difference in maintenance,” Parisi explains. Squeezing in as many fields as possible involved negotiating with fire department officials to convince them to relocate their driving range to another part of the island. “It was like this giant real estate jigsaw puzzle, except it was on public land,” Parisi says. With work on the fields came infrastructure upgrades—power, water mains, storm sewers—for the entire island. Parking was tucked under the Triborough to free up parkland. The island’s roads were put on a diet. Michael Barnicle, ASLA, a senior managing associate at MPFP, remembers redundant roadways left from the Moses era. “As we got into these areas and redeveloped them, we’d ask, ‘Do we really need that road? Can we take that land back and plant trees?’”
Granted, there were bobbles. A scheme to have private schools provide funds for the fields in exchange for a guarantee that they would get to practice and play when they wanted ran aground of public opinion and led to a lawsuit. The tennis center, another Zurita design, was built, but other facilities fell by the wayside. Ground was broken for the water park, but the developer stalled and stalled and then could not line up financing (silver lining: room for more fields on the north end of the island). The proposed amphitheater got bogged down in lawsuits (brought to protect other concert venues) and also went belly-up. But by then Boden had already moved forward with outdoor concerts on nine acres of lawn bordering the Harlem River. Every July, Governors Ball, a three-day outdoor concert, attracts 120,000 attendees—Parisi’s 20-year-old son and my own son among them. When he and I were touring the island, the big white tents were being set up for the annual Frieze art fair, which has become a must for people in the art world. Cirque du Soleil has made frequent appearances on the island as well.
It was a brilliant idea to clear the area under the 100-foot-high arches of the railroad trestle—where city agencies had fenced in areas and parked storage containers—to make room for a bike trail. Starr Whitehouse designed this trail, called the Hell Gate Pathway, which has been built in stages, with one segment remaining to connect to the Queens side of the island. In 2015, a Mathews Nielsen-designed Randall’s Island Connector was opened, leading from the Hell Gate Path, crossing the narrow Bronx Kill, and linking Randall’s Island, which is officially part of Manhattan, with the Bronx.
Eric Peterson, the deputy administrator for the park who oversees on-island operations from offices in Icahn Stadium—where a big, old, circular Cosmos sign leans against a wall—says his staff put up a meter to count users on the connector and has been surprised by the results. Peak activity is between 7:00 and 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 and 7:00 p.m. In other words, Bronx residents are availing themselves of the connector to bike to and from work, using Randall’s as a waypoint en route to and from Manhattan and Queens. Today you can walk or bike to and from any of the surrounding boroughs.
Clearly, RIPA, which has a staff of 140, including seasonal employees, and an annual operating budget of $8 million, has expanded the notion of what the island can be. Whereas Moses thought primarily of playgrounds and ball fields and stadium events, Boden sought to ensure there were opportunities for families to picnic—or just chill. A small “urban farm” has been set up, and there are free programs including catch-and-release fishing for kids, evening yoga, and history tours. Anne Wilson, RIPA’s senior director of planning, has helped conceive natural areas that filter water and serve as habitat—there’s a newly created salt marsh and a freshwater wetland—and, in recognition of these efforts, RIPA recently received an “Environmental Champion” award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A “living shoreline” pilot program is currently being developed for an ungainly part of the island where the seawall is in particularly bad shape and where materials tend to get piled during construction projects. People on the island refer to it as “the Boneyard.”
Which brings us to the potter’s fields. They remain a bit of a mystery. When excavation was being done on the southern end of Randall’s during field construction, contractors uncovered the foundation of one of the old hospital buildings. Parisi rushed out to the site to find “old walls and doors to rooms underground…porcelain-coated metal bowls…parts of the white bathroom tile.” Test pits were dug on parts of the island where work was being done, but no bones were found. On our tour of the island, Parisi waves in a vague way to an area on the Wards Island end where he thinks the potter’s fields once were because, he says, it’s an area where maps never showed the presence of buildings. In a New York Times article from 1855, a reporter recounts being rowed out to Wards Island to visit the “jolly” guardian of the potter’s field. But there are so many twists and turns in his description of the route they take until “climbing a slight hill and entering a gate” to the two acres “enclosed within a tight board fence”—where coffins were buried in trenches, and then the mounds turfed and planted with willows and cedars, and in single graves marked with headstones or wooden boards painted with names and ages—that it’s hard to know where the two ended up.
There may have been more than one burial place on the islands, and it’s even possible that at some point bodies were disinterred and transferred to Hart Island, which still functions as a grave site. The truth is, the earth on the island has been roiled up so many times—for the construction of the railroad trestle and the bridge and the building and demolition of institutions—that it might be impossible to pinpoint what earth, if any, is in its “original” place. Wilson estimates that a third of the island is fill brought in from off-island sites—which would make it not unlike much of the rest of New York City, especially its much-altered shoreline areas. A 2012 investigation by Geoarcheology Research Associates showed no evidence of human remains but much evidence of, as Wilson puts it, “a long history of turbulence and rebuilding, going back centuries.”
Today, Randall’s Island still has a “free-flowing Fellini feel to it,” Boden readily admits, although you will not round a corner and behold an upended car, the way Parisi did in his early investigations of the island. You may, however, stumble upon, say, the police department’s marine harbor unit, located next to the new fields on the north shore of the island. When the Manhattan parks division buys clay for its baseball fields, it gets dumped here before being divvied up and taken to parks throughout the borough. When there were steel girders and railroad ties left over after the construction of the High Line, in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, they were stacked here so the city could honor its commitment to preserve original parts. “It’s like the backyard of Manhattan parks,” Peterson says. If it never becomes the prettiest park on the planet, it’s because it’s too busy doing so many other important things.
When I spoke to the landscape architect Stephen Whitehouse, ASLA, about Randall’s in the days before its turnaround, he commented that its remoteness had led it to suffer more than parks that have people living across the street from them. “It lacked a constituency,” he said.
That’s no longer the case, as was abundantly clear at the most recent annual fund-raiser, held at Lincoln Center. The event attracted 700 guests and raised more than $1.7 million, according to Paula Stein, RIPA’s director of development. For the first time in all the years the organization has been holding the event, every table had been filled.
When I stopped in during the cocktail hour, the bar areas were jammed and a photographer’s flashbulb was lighting up the lobby. Just before 7:30, the catering staff circulated, gently striking handheld xylophones with small mallets, alerting people that it was time to make their way to the dining room. Before I said good-bye, Parisi, Wilson, Boden, and I paused on the ground floor, marveling at the crowd and reflecting on the many years of effort it took to make Randall’s Island Park what it is today.
“There certainly were challenges,” Boden says. Parisi smiles. “But you know,” she continued, “if we tried something and it didn’t work out, we just tried something else.”
Jane Margolies is a freelance journalist in New York and a frequent contributor to the New York Times. Her last piece for LAM was on Mill Street Courtyard in Yonkers, New York.