Few New Yorkers know that half a mile from lower Manhattan, they can cross a short stretch of water and enter another world — one of abandoned buildings, open fields and a growing number of idiosyncratic art and sustainability projects. This peculiar place is Governors Island, a rare piece of undeveloped land in New York City that’s on the brink of change.
The island was originally a fishing camp for the Lenape people, then a landing for the Dutch West India Company, a retreat for the British governors of colonial New York, and a fort during multiple 18th and 19th century wars. Between 1966 and 1996, the island served as a Coast Guard base and home to approximately 3,000 people.
In 2003, Governors Island began welcoming the public, offering tours of the historic buildings and landscaping much of the island as park space. More people and amenities came each year, with about 1 million people visiting in 2019 before COVID-19 disrupted access. The island has since reopened, and is in fact open during the winter for the first time ever.
Not many visitors have chosen to brave the cold so far, but that may soon change. In May 2021, the City Council voted to rezone part of the island for commercial development — although there’s opposition from local activists. In September, Mayor de Blasio revealed plans for a climate change research center that could employ more than 7,000 people. And earlier this month, the city announced an ice skating rink and “winter village” will open on December 17.
The island is already home to several public art displays as well as organizations focused on environmental issues — including the Harbor School, a small public high school that trains students for careers on the water; the Billion Oyster Project, an effort to restore oysters to New York Harbor; and Earth Matter, a nonprofit and educational organization that composts the island’s food and landscaping waste.
With new academic institutions and businesses likely to join these existing tenants, Governors Island won’t be a quiet world unto itself for much longer.