When Sande Elinson, 70, arrived in 1977, with her husband, Mitchell, and their two young children, Morgan and Blake, she also felt unshackled, but from the high cost of housing on Riverside Drive in Washington Heights.
On Roosevelt Island, which was developed as a middle-class neighborhood from the ruins of prisons and hospitals, affordable housing was plentiful, thanks to state programs that awarded public subsidies to apartment buildings in exchange for keeping rents low. But in the years after 1975, when the first apartments opened, the place could be hardscrabble, said Ms. Elinson, who recalls watching residents clean up loose bricks so they could plant a community garden.
Last year, according to the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, the population was about 14,000. But when Ms. Elinson moved in, there were only a couple thousand residents, she said: “There was a pioneering spirit.”
Her first home, a three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath rental in the sight line of the Chrysler Building, was initially $395 a month, a below-market rate courtesy of the Mitchell-Lama program. Rents were pegged to incomes, said Ms. Elinson, who sold paintings at street fairs while Mr. Elinson taught math.
After a few years, the family hoped to move to a nearby co-op that also offered Mitchell-Lama units. Like today, it was one of the few places to buy in a rental-dominated market.
But by then, the island’s secret was out, which meant there was a long waiting list. More than a decade passed before the Elinsons finally got an apartment in the co-op, a two-bedroom with parquet floors that they paid $28,000 for in 1999. Both buildings have since gone private, creating more market-rate units.
Major changes have altered the island’s 147 acres, especially over the last 15 years. High-rises have gone up on long-empty lots, while promised parks have come to life. Last month, Cornell Tech, a new science-focused graduate school, opened a portion of its new 12-acre campus where a hospital used to stand.
And tourists have come in droves, if mostly for the sweeping views from a tram that whisks over from Manhattan.
Though the island can sometimes be crowded, residents said, it also seems to be on firmer footing. Indeed, that community garden, where residents pay $60 a year for use of one of 132 plots, has an official long-term lease. “There are so many people to get to know now,” said Ms. Elinson, the garden’s historian. “But they will enrich the community.”
What You’ll Find
Roosevelt Island’s development is mostly clustered along Main Street, though it’s not quite a picket-fence version. Lining its length are blocky apartment houses, some with ridged concrete walls, and stores set back under covered sidewalks.
Included in this modest mix is a Gristedes supermarket that appears to have caught wind of newcomers: On Thursdays, students receive a 10 percent discount on groceries, with the exception of alcohol.
For several years, the Hudson Companies and the Related Companies, a local development team, have worked to upgrade shopping by adding lights and benches, and replacing lost tenants. But scattered vacancies remain, and some residents complain that vital businesses, like a hardware store, haven’t been replaced.
The newest housing stock is near the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge, which passes high overhead. Most recent was a 266-unit, market-rate rental at 480 Main, completed in 2015, the seventh building in Hudson and Related’s two-decades-long Riverwalk project.
Some Riverwalk buildings are owned by New York hospitals, like Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, which houses staff there. Developers sold units to hospitals when demand from the general public was softer.
The Octagon, a 500-unit rental carved from the former New York City Lunatic Asylum is toward the north, across from a remaining hospital called NYC Health and Hospitals/Coler.
Condos are available at 415 and 455 Main, and less frequently at No. 425, which also has market-rate and affordable rentals. Co-ops are at 555 and 575 Main, converted Mitchell-Lama buildings, and No. 531, the large Rivercross.
On the trim campus of Cornell, a joint effort with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, three buildings are up and running so far. The House, a dorm, can handle 500 students and teachers, a spokeswoman said, and is about 75 percent full in its first-ever semester.
What You’ll Pay
Inventory is tight. In late September, 12 co-ops and condos were for sale at an average price of $1.16 million, according to StreetEasy. The least expensive was a co-op studio with granite counters listed at $499,000; the priciest, a pair of adjacent condos, offered for sale together as a two-bedroom, at $1.843 million.
Over the long term, prices have spiked. This year, through late September, the average sale price was $1.05 million, up from $660,000 in 2012, or a 59 percent boost, said Jonathan Miller, president of the Miller Samuel appraisal firm.
As for rents, studios in the Octagon started at about $2,500 a month in September, while at 480 Main, or Riverwalk Point, a studio was about $2,300.
The island is home to a large foreign-born population, some of whom are employed by the United Nations. Anne Renteria, a hematologist at Mount Sinai Hospital who moved into a three-bedroom, two-bath co-op on Roosevelt Island earlier this year, noted that she has seen more international items at the grocery store than in her previous neighborhood in Manhattan. Wholesome Factory, a market that a few years ago replaced a secondhand store, for example, sells mochi ice cream, a sticky-rice Japanese dessert, Dr. Renteria said.
And there is no shortage of outdoor spaces, like lawns, baseball diamonds and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park, which has long, tree-lined promenades.
Prekindergarten through eighth grade students are served by the Roosevelt Island School, which enrolls about 550. On 2016 state exams, 54 percent of students met English standards, versus 38 percent citywide, while 58 percent met math standards, versus 36 percent citywide.
Since there are no high schools, most ninth-graders head to Manhattan. One relatively close option (as the gull flies) is Eleanor Roosevelt High School on the Upper East Side, on East 76th Street, where SAT scores in 2016 were 624 on reading, 655 on math and 632 on writing, versus 446, 466 and 440 citywide.
The most thrilling commute is probably by tram, which reaches Second Avenue and East 59th Street in about four minutes. The fare is a MetroCard swipe.
But one of the tram’s two platforms is out of commission and won’t be back online until next year. Trams, which usually depart every eight minutes during rush hour, now leave every 15.
As of August, there is ferry service. On weekdays, boats leave every 25 minutes and arrive in Manhattan in 35 minutes. Fares are $121 for a 30-day pass.
F trains also stop on the island, at a station that opened in 1989.
Cars can park on the street only in 20-minute intervals, discouraging overnight parking. Many instead end up in the Motorgate Garage next to the bridge to Queens.
V.I.P.’s have spent time on the island, but often against their will, in prisons — among them, the anarchist Emma Goldman and William Tweed, better known as Boss Tweed, said Judith Berdy, president of the island’s historical society.
But there was also Al Lewis, the actor from the 1960s television show “The Munsters,” who lived in a co-op on Main Street for years before his 2006 death.