Governors Island

21 Jun

It’s nice sometimes to feel connected to the present day, to the current, to what’s happening right now. Something you can point to and say, this is 2009. This is what we’re doing. And implicit in that statement the assumption that this is what we’re going to be doing, that there’s some type of plan ahead. It can’t be a coincidence that current can mean both, “belonging to the present time,” and, “a steady, smooth onward movement.” Everything we’re connected to is in the process of becoming something else. And so we watch the changes and take part in them. And it feels damn exciting.

Really, I felt it the other day just taking the ferry to Governors Island. As everyone was disembarking there were men with megaphones directing foot traffic and it hit me, this is right now, this is the present, this is the result of planning and organization and the desire of the public for that kind of thing. What was I going to find in this place? What was being done to change it? What would the parameters for its future development be? One can only speculate. Or maybe a better way to say it would be, one can only make an educated guess. About everything. That’s what makes planning so much fun. Something is going to happen. How close will you have called it?

There was a nice irony in finding that connection to the present on what is actually the oldest bit of New York City to have been inhabited by Europeans. A small party from the Dutch West India Company settled on Noten Eylant, as they called it, in May of 1624, one year before Fort Amsterdam was built on the southern tip of Manhattan. Of course Governors Island’s pace of development didn’t exactly keep up with its neighbor from that point on. It took its English name from the fact that it was held for the exclusive use of New York’s royal governors, before the American Revolution. From there it became a U.S. army base, owned by the federal government, with the Coast Guard taking over in 1966. They left for good thirty years later, and in 2003 ownership was returned to New York State and New York City.

Which raised the question of what exactly to do with it. Here’s a 172 acre island, just about five minutes away from Manhattan, that has stood outside the path of major development for almost four hundred years. Besides the two forts on the northern end, Fort Jay and Castle Williams, the whole place reminds me of some abandoned college campus, with its rows of stately former officer’s houses, and its entirely dorm like looking barracks. Our initial reaction upon arriving there was amazement, and surprise, each time Manhattan’s skyline swung back in to view – oh wait, this isn’t bucolic New Hampshire. Then after an hour it wore off, we’d seen it all. The whole place is only a little bigger than the Reservoir in Central Park.

But it’s an island, in the middle of New York Harbor. It’s inherently fantastic. I don’t think there’s a consensus yet on what the city is going to do with it. My girlfriend thought that they should pay us to live here, and you know, take care of the houses and trees and stuff. What giant, wonderful trees! Uh, oak trees I think. The New Island Festival was going on while we were there as well, all a part of the bigger, ongoing celebration of the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s exploration of this certain pocket of the world. People told me there were some great site-specific theater pieces going on, which got me excited and made me feel connected to the current yet again. I mean just the conversation; we didn’t actually see any of the festival. My girlfriend did buy me ice cream though.  Oreo.

(Originally posted Sept. 25th, 2009 on


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