Yesterday was a beautiful day for wandering along Roosevelt Island’s waterfront. The Omnibus team and fifty of our friends spent the afternoon learning about the history of the masterplan, seeing one of the infamous pneumatic trash chutes in action, and getting a guided tour of the Fast Trash! exhibition (open for one more week!). Thanks are in order for Juliette Spertus, Judy Berdy, Jack McGrath, Adam Michaels, and Marianne Lau for taking us around.
Scheduled tour-guide Donald Richardson, one of the masterplanners of Roosevelt Island, was unable to join us at the last minute. Luckily, Judy Berdy of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society was part of the group and stepped in to fill his shoes. Berdy shared her extensive historical knowledge of the island, from its days as Blackwell’s Island, home to a penitentiary, smallpox hospital and asylum for the insane, to its transition to a hospital complex, renamed Welfare Island, and its subsequent redevelopment in the late 1960s/early ’70s into the Roosevelt Island we know today. The original three-phase masterplan, developed by architects Philip Johnson and John Burgee, anticipated housing and services for 20,000 residents and turned the island into a car-free zone, connected to Queens by the Roosevelt Island Lift Bridge and to Manhattan by tram and subway (though F train service did not come to the island until 1989). Ultimately only phase one was implemented, and car-free didn’t take hold (though the island is essentially a one-road town — Main Street, supplemented by a few service roads), but the island flourished and is now home to approximately 12,000 people. Development continues, with a newly modernized tramway opening later this year and construction underway for the FDR Four Freedoms Park at the island’s southern tip.
One element of the masterplan that did get implemented — and the topic that piqued the interest of many of our meet-up attendees — is the island’s pneumatic trash system. Juliette Spertus, architect, curator of Fast Trash! and subject of last week’s Omnibus feature, explained more about the history and implementation of this unusual trash collection system. Together with Jack McGrath, the exhibition’s curatorial assistant, and Marianne Lau, an architect who lives on Roosevelt Island, Juliette walked us around the island, stopping to let us see the infrastructure in action. First stop: Riverwalk, courtesy of Charlie, a maintenance supervisor, who showed us one of the residential complex’s chutes. Next stop: the waste transfer station, where we saw the remarkably unassuming entry point where the island’s two central tubes converge to deposit the trash of thousands and peered in through windows at the facility.
While walking along the waterfront, we caught sight of another project of interest to Omnibus readers: the tidal hydropower turbine project implemented by Verdant Power and Keyspan to harness the energy of the tidal estuary that is the East River.
We wrapped up the afternoon at the exhibition space itself, watching a sample Lamson airtube shoot a capsule over our heads and across the room, looking at archival documentation of New York City’s now-defunct pneumatic mail delivery system, and learning about past experiments and current advances in pneumatic waste management in cities around the world. Juliette, Adam Michaels of Project Projects, who designed and co-organized the exhibition, and other members of the exhibition team discussed the research and inspiration for the show and pondered issues surrounding waste management and consumption on a broader scale. Our nation consumes at an excessive rate, producing a similarly excessive waste stream, one that is whisked away to far-off landfills, making it easy for us to ignore or deny the larger impact our habits create. The relative invisibility of our waste management system, it was argued yesterday, might detract from our perception of individual accountability. Would a centrally-located, highly-visible waste disposal system encourage better practices? How can we learn from the infrastructure investments being made in places like Stockholm, Barcelona or Macau? Both Juliette and Judy also rallied for individual and community involvement on a local level. The existing system is reaching its limits, and those who support its modernization, potential expansion to incorporate recycling, or even exploration of the technology’s plausibility beyond the island must make their voices heard. Sound advice from a Sunday afternoon walking tour.
As always, thanks to everyone who came out to join us. Don’t miss our next event. Sign up for our weekly email, become a fan of Urban Omnibus on Facebook, or follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest.
Photos by Varick Shute or Cassim Shepard.