In late September of 1973, amidst sweeping social, spatial, and demographic shifts in the city’s make-up, then-Mayor John Lindsay ventured to Welfare Island, a small slice of land sandwiched between Manhattan and Queens in the East River. In the shadow of major New Deal-era constructions, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt East River Drive and the Queensbridge Houses, and just 400 yards to the east of the glistening United Nations headquarters, Welfare Island was a vantage point through which visitors could view a city vastly transformed from its early-20th century incarnation. It was also the site of what was to be an ambitious plan for affordable housing, which Mayor Lindsay, not unlike President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, counted among his chief ambitions.
As early as 1966, articles began to appear in the New York Times touting the city’s intentions to redevelop dilapidated Welfare Island and transform the area with affordable housing units for over 20,000 New York City residents. On September 24, 1973, this radical change began in earnest with a rededication of the island in honor of a leader who had done so much to shape the social and built environment of the City of New York: President Roosevelt.
Embarking by boat from Gracie Mansion, some 750 people, among them several members of the Roosevelt clan, joined Mayor Lindsay and other dignitaries in a ceremony to officially rename the island for the nation’s 32nd president. After proclaiming the date “Franklin D. Roosevelt Day” in the five boroughs, Mayor Lindsay made note of FDR’s legacy “all around us,” including the “continuing testimony to FDR’s foresight, wisdom, and concern for mankind,” evidenced by the United Nations headquarters just across the East River.
The mayor honored key players in the redevelopment and rededication of what was now to be known as Roosevelt Island. Former New York Governor W. Averell Harriman, the chairman of the FDR Day committee, Philip Johnson, the architect of the Roosevelt Island Master Plan, Edward J. Logue, President and CEO of the New York State Urban Development Corporation, and Benno C. Schmidt, Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Roosevelt Island Development Corporation, to whom Mayor Lindsay presented a bronze plaque officially renaming the Island in honor of President Roosevelt, were all honored that afternoon. Additional remarks by Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr. and Vernon E. Jordan, Jr., the Executive Director of the National Urban League, were delivered to the gathered crowd. Finally, Joseph Robinson, President of the Four Freedoms Foundation, presented to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr. a study model of a Roosevelt memorial. The memorial, to be built on the southern tip of the island, was designed by legendary architect Louis I. Kahn, who was also in attendance that day.
Following the rededication ceremony, guests again traversed the East River by boat, making their way back to Gracie Mansion. As reported by Main Street, Roosevelt Island’s local newspaper, members of late President Roosevelt’s family were “very pleased by the day’s events, and were happy that a lasting memorial to the late President- the first major FDR memorial in the country- would stand here.” New units of affordable housing began to rise from the previously neglected grounds of what was by then Roosevelt Island. It was not, however, until nearly four decades later that the vision espoused that afternoon was realized in its entirety, and Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park finally opened to the public. It all began with Mayor Lindsay and a boat ride from Gracie Mansion.
A special thank you to the Roosevelt Island Historical Society for providing archival materials and background information, without which this post would not have been possible.