Technically actually comprising the two islands of Randall’s and Ward’s, the small body of water that separated the two was filled in the early 1960s. The island itself separates many different boroughs of New York, representing a green oasis on the East River between East Harlem, the South Bronx and Astoria, Queens.
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The park itself covers most of the island and has become one of the city’s main recreation hubs. It has seen a remarkable transformation in recent years, owing largely to the vision and support of Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Seeking to restore and preserve open spaces, the island has benefited from his historic citywide commitment. The island is now home to several brand-new sports facilities, such as a golf course, a 20-court tennis center, and an IAAF certified track and field facility in the Icahn Stadium, in addition to over 9 acres of restored wetlands, more than 60 playing fields, and miles of waterfront bike and pedestrian pathways.
As well as being restored to its natural beauty, the island is also enjoying a cultural revival, having hosted major events such as Lollapalooza, Cirque du Soleil, and the Electric Zoo, to name a few. This is building upon the history of the park, which until not that long ago had fallen into serious disrepair. Back in its heyday, it was a stage for greats like Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix, and the island hopes to lay claim to this prestige once again; it seems to be succeeding. It now has two music festivals of its very own, the Governors Ball and the Panorama Music Festival.
The island has a rich history. Small populations have lived there since as early as the 17th century. It was developed first by the Ward brothers, who built a cotton mill and the first bridge across the East River in 1807. However, this was short lived and the bridge was destroyed by a storm in 1821. The island remained largely abandoned until 1840, when it was sold to the city itself. From the mid-19th into the early 20th century, the island was an out-of-the-way location used to house various social facilities, an existence that sounds like something ripped straight out of a Batman comic. It was home to an orphanage, a burial ground for the poor, an “idiot” asylum, a rest home for Civil War veterans, a reform school for juvenile delinquents, another insane asylum, and a psychiatric center, among other things.
The vision to rebrand and turn the island into something a little more appealing began in 1916, but didn’t officially get under way until 1930. Randall’s Island Park is overseen by the Randall’s Island Park Alliance (RIPA), a public-private partnership founded in 1992. They work with the local community and the city itself to provide sports venues, cultural events, and environmental exploration.
The island can now happily be described as a place of beauty and boasts two large natural environments in the salt marsh and the freshwater wetland. This is in addition to the large green spaces, many bustling public parks, and popular sports amenities. It’s a pretty spot with a rich but gritty history and definitely a place to check out on any visit to the Big Apple.