On New York’s Governors Island, the living is mellow and the water is every shade of blue


Figment NYC, a public art program that encourages public participation, built this colorful giraffe named “Achilles” on Governors Island, where public art dots the sprawling lawns. (Audrey Hoffer/Audrey Hoffer)
July 17

On a glorious June day, the 11 a.m. ferry eases out of Slip 7 at the Battery Maritime Building into the silvery waters of New York Harbor. Little whitecaps wash gently against the dock walls.  

I’m on deck, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with other wide-eyed passengers, mesmerized by the scene: The Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges stretching over the East River. The Staten Island Ferry gliding past. The blue-bronze Statue of Liberty raising high her arm. Cranes on container ships along the New Jersey shore dotting the cloudless sky. Seagulls squawking overhead.

And Governors Island lying straight ahead.

Just 172 acres — 20 city blocks long and five blocks wide — the island floats in the middle of New York Harbor at the confluence of the Hudson and East rivers and the Atlantic Ocean. A strategic location for hundreds of years, it’s just a stone’s throw from the southern tip of Manhattan and an eight-minute ferry ride away. 

With a playground, picnic tables, biking and walking paths, public art, outdoor concerts and theater, carless streets, hammocks where you can catch your breath, and terrific views, Governors Island is an outdoor wonderland designed expressly for public enjoyment. 

If you go: Governors Island, New York

On the ferry, Barbara and Jim Mastrianni tell me that they’ve brought their bikes and stowed them below deck for $2. “We’re taking a bike trip around Manhattan today, with a detour to Governors Island and Brooklyn,” Jim says.  

The ferry pulls into Soissons Landing, where the water is navy blue. Hordes of people carrying lawn chairs and picnic baskets, pushing strollers and walking bicycles, career off the gangplank. I feel a warm breeze on my face.

 An early purpose of Governors Island — so-dubbed in the late 1700s when the British colonial assembly in New York gave the land to “His Majesties’ Royal Governors” for their private use — was to defend New York City from naval attack, and ahead of me I see Fort Jay, completed in 1809 on the highest point to give its cannon a wide firing range. Castle Williams, another fortification, was built between 1807 and 1811 to defend the harbor and Fort Jay, “because at that time we had issues” with France and England, says National Park Service ranger Collin Bell, giving me a history lesson as we stand in the Castle courtyard. Between tours, Bell is on duty to answer questions from roving visitors.

In 1861, 900 Confederate soldiers were brought up from North Carolina and installed as prisoners in Castle Williams. “Conditions were pretty grim, with 60 men assigned to a cell the size of a master bedroom,” Bell says. 

After the Civil War, the castle fell into disuse. The U.S. Army established a major command headquarters on the island and built stately residences for officers. Sycamores, maples, spruces, dogwoods, beeches and Japanese cherry trees shade those homes on Colonels’ Row today. 

When the Army closed up shop on the island in 1966, the Coast Guard moved in and stayed 30 years.  In 2003, 22 acres were transferred to the National Park Service and 150 acres to the Trust for Governors Island. 

Today, nonprofit groups use the former officers’ homes for exhibitions and events. Third Rail Projects, a New York dance and performance company, works in House No. 17. Better Than Jam, a Brooklyn boutique, sells local handmade products in House No. 6.

In Building No. 110, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council runs an artist-in-residence summer program. Rudy Shepherd, who grew up in Springfield, Va., and teaches art at Penn State University, takes the ferry daily to sculpt in a studio there. “I pack my lunch,” he told me as we chatted on the ride over, “and during the day I’ll take a break, wander the island, lie in a hammock.”

Hammock Grove is an existential oasis. Fifty knotty rope hammocks tied to posts scattered around a field look like comfortably textured furniture. I peer around for the most comfortable one, plop in, wriggle to get my balance and look up. Choppers cruise overhead. The Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and New Jersey are in plain view. The water is blackish-purple with waves like lace cuffs. It’s heaven in a glance. 

The Play Lawn is a gigantic field with a backdrop of the Manhattan skyline’s skyscrapers and high-rises. Huge abstract sculptures by Figment NYC, a public art program, dot the grass. They invite climbing, crawling, even scribbling, as on the huge giraffe covered with chalk drawings.

Someone taps me on the shoulder as I’m reading a plaque affixed to a boulder on Andes Road. “Let me tell you the story,” says Joseph Korber, another National Park Service ranger in olive. “It’s a bittersweet memorial. Streets across the island are named for soldiers of World War I’s 16th Infantry. This one is for Lt. James Andes, killed in action July 1918.”

He plunges into the swarm of people and shouts back, “Don’t miss the jazz party.”

The music of Michael Arenella & His Dreamland Orchestra pulses loudly as I approach the Jazz Age Lawn Party.  “This music was made for dancing, and 90 years later it’s still great,” emcee Michael Haar croons. 

I can’t see the water what with the thousands of costumed men, women and children wearing neckties and straw hats, feathers and fringes, suspenders and knickers, like time-travelers from the flapper era. “Our outfits are definitely 1920s-inspired,” says Isabel Odean of the cream-colored dresses, pearl necklaces and green shoes that she and her sister, Naomi, are wearing. 

The party field boasts a dance floor and a music stage and is bordered by sycamores that send mottled sunlight onto the crowd of people lounging, eating and drinking on blankets laid out edge-to-edge on the grass. “We’re so close to Manhattan, but this transports you back to another time,” says Amanda Victoria, national ambassador for St­-Germain, the event’s liquor sponsor. 

Now I’m in front of Blazing Saddles, the rental outfit for bicycles, helmets and blue four-wheeled surreys with a yellow fringe on top. In the distance, Freedom Tower rises to infinity, and from here, the water looks ocher. The water, I think, is the island’s main attraction, visible nearly everywhere you go, and changing color from different angles and at different times of day.  

I amble along the Great Promenade, an ordinary path now but on the drawing board for redesign as a 2.2-mile walk- and bikeway encircling the entire island. Mallards are swimming near the shore’s rocks, and a family is playing bocce on the grass. Fading sunlight lands like diamonds splattered across the now slate-colored water. 

I board the 7 o’clock ferry, and with a horn blast, we push off.

From the Manhattan shore a billboard blares, “There’s more to New York than  
. . .
.” I finish the sentence in my head. “Than Times Square and the Empire State Building.”

There certainly is, I think. There certainly is.

Hoffer is a freelance writer in Washington.

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