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Governors Island: Little-Known Park Treasure

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“Who knew it was this close,” said one friend. “Who knew the ferry was free,” said another. “And what a fabulous view of downtown.” Like most New Yorkers, we’d never been there, but one Friday in August—one of those rare days without rain—we packed picnic lunches, slathered on the sun screen, headed downtown by subway, met up at the surprisingly-short noon ferry line, and spent three hours discovering Governors Island for ourselves. It was a great excursion.

ferry-to-governors-islandWhich is why I urge walkers, bikers, families, picnickers, lovers, history buffs, artists, and visitors to New York to take a free, seven-minute New York City ferry from the Battery Maritime Building (to the left of the Staten Island ferry at South and Whitehall Streets) to a tiny piece of greenery in New York harbor, and enjoy a day at one of the city’s most delightful, little-known parks, Governors Island. There are no admission fees: just bring your Metrocard to get yourself to the ferry.

Governors Island is only open three days a week, Friday, Saturday and Sunday (with Friday drawing the smallest crowds) through October 11. The ferry leaves every hour, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Fridays and to 7 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. It returns to the city on the half hour.

governors-island-historic-districtBefore you go, here is a bit of history. For 200 years, until January 2003, when the Federal Government transferred the 172-acre Island to the people of New York and the National Park Service, Governors Island was a restricted military base. Colonial governors, revolutionary soldiers, confederate prisoners, doughboys from World War I, Army and Coast Guard families, and a host of famous men—Ulysses S. Grant, Wilbur Wright, Soviet President Gorbachev, among others—spent time on the Island. The military presence is particularly visible in the Island’s 93-acre Historic District. With hundred-year old shade trees, mostly-empty 19th Century Federal and Victorian-style homes, colonial-brick buildings and green, manicured grounds, the Historic District reminded me of an old-fashioned, somewhat haunted, college town. It’s my favorite part of the Island.

Governors Island--Harbor Views

The Island offers everything from great harbor vistas, biking paths, leisurely strolls, baseball fields and historic tours to something more intangible but equally precious, a reminder that the open sea and sky—so hard to find in the city itself—is an experience available to us all.

For an overview of what you can do and find on the Island, go to its website (www.govisland.com). It will help you plan your excursion. Then, once you step off the ferry, go to Building 140, (left of the ferry), which houses the National Park Service Visitor Information Center and Bookstore. You can find maps, guides and more background information.

The building also has restrooms and vending machines. I suggest bringing your own food and drink, since there are only a few limited concessions.

How you take advantage of what the Island has to offer is up to you. Here are the three options.

bike-for-twoBikers. The Island, with its flat 2.2-mile promenade around the perimeter, is ideal for leisure bikers. You can bring your own bikes (separate line on the ferry) or rent all manner of bikes at the “Bike and Roll” kiosk behind Building 140 to the left of the ferry. (Go to “Bike and Roll’s” website for information about equipment and pricing.) We saw one couple on a bicycle built for two. We also saw families in surries, bike trailers and, of course, New Yorkers from the mainland with their own bikes and helmets. All told, there are more than 5 miles of car-free roads. You can criss-cross the Island, as well as circumvent it, and find the best places to take in the view. On Fridays, bike rentals are free for one hour. First come, first served, so get there early.

governors-island-treesFamilies with Children. This is a very family-friendly place. We saw tons of parents and children of all ages. If you are looking for playgrounds and ballfields, your best bet is to hop on the open-air, sightseeing mini-bus that you can pick up near the ferry exit, and ride it to the far end of the Island, known as Picnic Point. It offers a great view of the Statue of Liberty, but is not the most beautiful part of the Island. Another option is to stroll around the Historic District, spread your blanket under a shade tree and let your kids run around. There is also a free Children’s Arts Center (go to www.cmany.org for details.) in the Historic District. On September 13 and 20, a free, self-paced Scavenger Hunt for adults and accompanied children will be offered, starting every half hour from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through the hunt, you and your family can learn more about the history and natural environment of the island, New York harbor and the Hudson River.

governors-island-strollStrollers With A Love of History. There is an excellent self-guided walking tour brochure, that you can pick up when you debark from the ferry. A map, photographs of the most distinguished buildings and information on all of them will effortlessly guide you around the most beautiful and interesting part of the Island. Highlights include Castle Williams, that once housed Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, Fort Jay, the oldest building on the Island, and a series of private homes – now hauntingly empty. In and amidst this area are Adirondack chairs painted red, hammocks, picnic tables, pieces of art and acres of shade trees. The Parade Ground—a vast, green manicured lawn where Prince Harry recently played polo—offers spectacular views of downtown New York as well as places to stretch out on a blanket and relax.

Governors Island Promenade

Governors Island is being run by a joint, city-state, non-profit group—The Governors Island Preservation and Education Corporation (GIPEC). It is trying to come up with a plan for the Island’s future that will ensure a steady revenue. So far, there is no approved plan, but because the Federal Government mandated the creation of new parkland when it agreed to turn over Governors Island to New York, GIPEC has hired a Dutch architecture firm to design a forty-acre park. It will be built by tearing down some of the less historic buildings and using the demolished brick and concrete to create new hills and dales. There is a precedent for this. It turns out that half of the Island is, itself, landfill. During the early 20th Century, using rocks and dirt from Lexington Avenue subway excavations, the Army Corps of Engineers added 103 acres of land, most of which is flat and fairly treeless. When funds are found for the project, this is where the new park will be located.

Because the finances of Governors Island are so precarious, I suspect that enjoying its amenities without spending a dime may not last. My advice—pay a visit while it is still free, ungentrified, uncommercialized, and relatively undiscovered.

Statue of Liberty from Governors Island

Governors Island will be part of a weeklong, citywide celebration of 400 years of friendship between New York City and the Netherlands. The New Island Festival will be held from Thursday, September 10 through Sunday, September 13, and then from Thursday, September 17 through Sunday, September 20.

Direct from Holland, the New Island festival will include concerts, DJ sets, provocative theatre and dazzling visual arts by world class Dutch performers. Check out the U.S. premiere of Silent Disco—a joyous dance party where all the participants wear headphones. More than 100 artists are expected to perform at the Festival. Visit www.newislandfestival.com for more details, festival hours, and directions.

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