Lost in New York: Peter Visits Historic, Haunted Governors Island
Peter Tatara - October 12, 2006
My name is Peter Tatara. I live in New York City. Perhaps you've heard of the place. First made famous in the 2004 film Spider-Man 2, New York is today visited by hundreds of millions of people, but while they all visit 42nd Street, very few tourists explore so much as one block away. Enter this very travelogue, a field guide to the urban odyssey that is 43rd Street and beyond. Won't you join me as I get Lost in New York? Okay, that last sentence sucked.
New York City, as you may have heard, is crowded. It's noisy, dirty, and every square foot is packed with no fewer than 19 people. Of course, it's also bustling, exciting, and invigorating, so us New Yorkers forgive the fact that the NYPD's made personal space illegal. Still, there comes a point, after having your nose in some guy's armpit for 45 minutes on the 7 Train, where you crave a little open space.
Realizing this, New York City's planners plopped Central Park right into Manhattan's heart, along with Flushing Meadows-Corona Park in Queens, Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. You know what, though? These parks aren't any secret, and odds are, as soon as you set foot inside any of these edens, your nose will end up right back in the armpit of that guy from the 7 Train.
What's a New Yorker to do? One solution's to lock yourself in your apartment, close all your curtains, turn off your cell phone, and lose yourself in your new Dead Like Me boxset. Another's to visit Governors Island. Governors Island? Governors Island.
Governors Island, only 800 yards off the southern tip of Manhattan, began as a Dutch West India Company settlement in 1624 and grew into a military base protecting New York harbor through the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War, and both World Wars. In 1988, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev held a summit on the island. In 2001, President Clinton declared the island a National Park. In 2003, Governors Island was opened to the public.
I know, I talked a bit of history there -- and there's a lot of history on the island -- but don't let that scare you. If you're into exploring museums and ancient forts, Governors Island has them, but if you just want a secluded green oasis that transports you to another world, Governors Island is also for you.
I first heard about Governors Island from a poster on a subway in early 2006 and spent the better part of the summer trying to convince a friend to come along with me, but no one had ever heard of the place before -- and no one wanted to take a chance and see what it was like. So, near the end of the summer, I headed out to Governors Island alone.
The ferry to the island leaves every half hour and is fast -- no more than five minutes -- and once you set foot on the island, you're enveloped by endless green. Rising up from the port, small groves and stone barracks dot an open, grassy expanse. I saw butterflies. I saw dragonflies. I heard birds.
The island's open only from the end of the spring to the start of the fall and only accessible by ferry. Who and what's allowed on Governors Island is very regulated, meaning a very clean, safe, well-maintained park. (In other words, a New York City park without panhandlers, bootleggers, and urine puddles.) Walking along the island's paths, I found pockets of picnickers, couples biking, and friends playing soccer, and between them all, only open, empty space. It was astonishing.
But, as much as I love open spaces, I love rusting, ruined, decrepit spaces even more, and I fell in love with Governors Island's Fort Jay and Castle Williams. These fortresses, each over 100 years old, still stand with cannons at the ready. Sure, they may be covered in dust, mold, and spider webs, but there's a musty, real history to places like this, and being able to run your fingers over a wall or a window that's witnessed the entirety of New York City and America's yesterdays is heaven.
Speaking of witnessing New York City, while one walks through Governors Island, all you see is green, but should you turn back and face New York City, all of Manhattan's skyline unfolds.
I spent hours and hours just exploring the island, taking in the green, the grey, and the polka dots.
The day I decided to visit Governors Island, the National Park Service invited an outdoor theatre troupe who had composed a play especially for the park. I sat and watched the play, featuring Caucasian women in polka dot kimono running along Fort Jay's walls, screaming about their dead father, an actor who spent the entire play face down in the grass beside a stuffed sheep. They also had a drum set they never used just placed in the middle of a field. I didn't get it.
I had an amazing time on Governors Island and didn't mind not having a companion along with me at all -- it just meant more open space for myself. One thing, though, that did slightly disappoint me was that I didn't see any ghosts. While at no point nor time was I told Governors Island was haunted, I felt certain, with the place's history, there'd be at least one zombie Indian or Revolutionary War soldier haunting the island's shadows. I was wrong.
Or so I thought, but as I neared the end of my time on Governors Island, I heard a rumbling in the sky. A great, slow, silver whale. A B-29 sleepily snaking its way up the west side of Manhattan. I stared at the lumbering, roaring beast, instantly recognizing its shape, but I couldn't believe my eyes. Why was a B-29 in the sky? Was it heading to the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum? I tried to snap a picture but my shot came out a silver blur, and after the day was through, I tried looking up any account of or information on the flight but came back empty handed. Still, I know what I saw. A ghost.
The National Park Service is actively promoting Governors Island and trying to turn it into "New York's next Great Place." I urge you to visit the place before that happens. Right now, Governors Island is Manhattan's own personal Zipang, and as long as it stays an unexplored secret, it will remain a sanctuary, but the moment people get wise, your nose will again be up the armpit of that guy from the 7 Train.