By the 1820s, Manhattan had become a national center for finance and trade. The construction of the Erie Canal and railroads further propelled the growth of New York City.

The city purchased several small islands surrounding Manhattan to build rehabilitation institutions to deal with the rise in crime and public health issues. In 1825, the island that would become Roosevelt Island was purchased from the Blackwell family, and was therefore for many years referred to as Blackwell’s Island. The first buildings on the island were a penitentiary and the New York Lunatic Asylum. More hospitals were added along with an almshouse and workhouse.

The Smallpox Hospital (several photos below), later renamed Maternity and Charity Hospital Training School, was opened in 1856 and was closed and abandoned a century later. The ruins of the hospital, easily viewed from the east side of Manhattan, have appeared in many movies and comic books.

Larger, more technologically advanced facilities were eventually built on Manhattan, and Roosevelt Island fell into disuse.

The island was redeveloped with housing communities throughout the 1970s with the addition of an aerial tram and subway stations. Today, the island is primarily residential. 

In the early 2000s, Cornell Tech, a college of applied sciences, was built and opened on the island.

Four Freedoms Park was built on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island and opened in 2012. The park houses the only memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his home state of New York. The name of the park derives from the four freedoms President Roosevelt said belonged to all human beings:

  • Freedom of Speech and Expression – the best defense against the corruption of democracy
  • Freedom of Worship – our shield against the forces of bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism
  • Freedom from Want – so that hunger, poverty and pestilence can be erased from the earth
  • Freedom from Fear – calling for international institutions and agreements that will keep the peace, control armaments, prevent aggression, accept the Rule of Law, and assure social justice

Eleanor Roosevelt, after the death of her husband, worked to ensure the Four Freedoms were incorporated into the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Smallpox Hospital Ruins

Four Freedoms Park and President Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial

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