Roosevelt Island has small-town life and feud to match

Former asylum site falls short of utopia in redevelopment

March 15, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK -- Those with smallpox, the palsied, the paralytic, the utterly mad, the vagrant, the penniless, the sexually depraved, the criminally fiendish - from the early 1800s until the -- early 1900s, that is who the great city sent to the beautiful island.

Back then, lovely as it was, this two-mile sliver of land in the East River echoed with the sobs of the imprisoned and the dying. But by the 1950s, the asylum, the jail, the poorhouse and most everything else was gone. And in 1973, as if by exorcism, the island was recast and renamed, exchanging Welfare Island for Roosevelt Island, in memory of the wartime president.

No longer a hideaway for outcasts, the island's new purpose was to be an experiment in urban living, a small town right in the heart of a huge city. Gotham's utopia would house 20,000 residents, and they would be a noble-minded mix of races, ages, incomes, and physical abilities. The island, embraced by a waterfront promenade, would be wheelchair accessible and car free.

Official's dismissal sought

By most accounts, in the last 25 years Roosevelt Island has indeed become an excellent place to live, if still far short of the showcase originally planned. There are just 3,200 apartments and 8,400 residents, but the vistas are breathtaking. Crime is relatively minimal. Garbage is sucked away through pneumatic tubes. The diverse mix of people mostly get along.

"Mostly," however, is an important qualifier. These combative days, many leading citizens are crusading for the dismissal of the island's chief operating officer, Dr. Jerome H. Blue. They call him irresponsible, unreliable, and undependable, too. And that is just the milder stuff.

"This is as devious a man as you'll ever meet, and he's doing incalculable harm," said Patrick Stewart, president of the islandwide residents' association.

That sweeping appraisal is typical of the emotion and hyperbole that dominate debate on the island, which seems to have a small town's gift for long-term feuds and festering enmities. While Blue's detractors cite some specific complaints - a lack of systematic upkeep of the sea wall, for instance, or the use of asphalt instead of brick in street repairs - much of the combustion seems to arise from personal frictions.

"Some people had gotten used to the island being run a certain way," said Blue, who in several interviews was cooperative with his time if cautious with his answers. "My focus has been on responsible management. This hasn't always been met with open arms."

Still, there is a larger issue involved: How much say should residents and community leaders have in governing the island? "We have no democracy here," said Linda L. Heimer, a longtime resident. "What other town in America has no power to elect the people who run it?"

Idealistic roots

A child of the '60s, Roosevelt Island was conceived during an idealistic time when government assumed a responsibility to build and subsidize housing - and welcomed the social engineering of planned communities. From the start, however, the island has been in a struggle to fulfill its visionary master plan as government priorities changed and financing dried up.

Under a quirky set of circumstances, the island is owned by the city but leased to the state until the year 2068. It is considered part of Manhattan but gets its city police and fire services from Queens. Its chief operating officer serves much like a colonial governor, albeit with the oversight of a board of state and city appointees, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corp.

Gov. George Pataki gave Blue the job in June 1996, not long after the governor had reduced state contributions to the island's budget almost to zero. In the '90s, those contributions had annually totaled $4 million to $8 million. Blue's main mission was parsimony, and by his account, he achieved a $727,000 surplus in the 1996-97 fiscal year.

His efforts were not widely appreciated. "It's nice to save money, but the problem with Blue is that he and his entire crew do not live on the island or have the same concerns as islanders," said Ruth Limmer, a retired English professor. "Dr. Blue cares more about his own future than the island's."

Residents routinely call him doctor, though the chief officer, who is 44, says it is unnecessary - he has no M.D., but rather a Ph.D. in neuroscience. His varied job experience includes work as an assistant dean at a college of osteopathic medicine and a legislative aide to Sen. Alfonse D'Amato.

Whatever his other skills, Blue appears to be a poor communicator. In public, his wording is often concise enough for a telegram. He was once timed responding to 44 minutes of questions with 4 minutes of answers. His problems with the islanders seem less about what he does than how he does it.

"He promises to answer my questions and then hides the information," said Stewart, a semi-retired management consultant. "He has a siege mentality. Dr. Blue thinks everyone hates him - and he's probably right."

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