Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island

We know it as Roosevelt island. But until the 1920s, it was Blackwell’s Island—the two-mile spit of land in the East River.

Here, the 19th century city put its poor, quarantined, and convicted in penitentiaries, a lunatic asylum, and a smallpox hospital, among other institutions.

Edward Hopper’s 1928 painting, Blackwell’s Island, contrasts the cobalt blue waters of the East River (so lovely a speedboat is whizzing along) with the island’s haunting past as a broken-down dumping ground for so-called undesirables.

There’s almost no one in the painting—but you can feel the humanity emanating from those buildings.

Hopper “painted this work at the height of his powers and it exemplifies some of the best of Hopper’s style: a complex architectural composition with a full range of light and shadow, few people and the drama of the past colliding with the present in the form of historic architecture meeting modern,” says Don Bacigalupi, president of Crystal Bridges, which owns the painting.

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28 Responses to “Past and present collide on Blackwell’s Island”

  1. Tom B Says:

    I like this style (modernist) of painting. It must of been very controversial among artists and critics when started. It almost looks so simple, but I know it’s not. The East River never looked so good!

  2. VirginiaB Says:

    What a great painting and by one of my favorite artists. Among America’s greatest artists, definitely. I have never seen this painting but have strong connections to Blackwell’s Island. Family members worked there as attendants when they arrived from Ireland in the 1840s–two marriages resulted! And I have a great-great grandmother who died of TB in the charity hospital there, another Irish immigrant. As an aside, for many years it was called Welfare Island, the name used for much of the 20c. Thanks for posting this wonderful painting.

  3. Todd tarwid Says:

    I grew up near the queensborough bridge in the 70s and would take the tram over to Roosevelt island all the time to hang out with friends and remember how creepy the octogon house was,a famous asylum, extinct for generations, we were all convinced it was haunted and didn’t want to get within 30 feet of it. Apparently in the last few years it’s been renovated in an apartment complex, sounds like a Hollywood movie

    • Bob Says:

      https://www.octagonnyc.com/

      “The Octagon is Roosevelt Island’s greenest waterfront residence. Completed in 2006, fourteen stories of modernized, upscale residential rentals now flank the building’s signature eight-sided rotunda”

    • Zoé Says:

      Todd – re. your “haunted” thoughts:

      I always wonder about apartments & condos made from such places. I recall reading about an asylum in New England made into apartments. Not everyone can live in such places. It’s like The Shining!

      My brother rented an ‘apartment’ in a funeral parlor in Brooklyn. I don’t want to elaborate here – but there were some gruesome reminders (of embalming etc.). And very sadly a plastic bag of cremated remains which were never claimed so left on a shelf. One of his housemates there is now a famous actress. (For about 20/25 years now). Lol… the early years of celebrities living rough…

  4. Richard Kenyon Says:

    Those parallel cloud streets look almost like jet condensation trails.

    • Zoé Says:

      Lol… careful or the ‘chemtrail’ conspiracy theorists will flood Ephemeral’s lovely blog w/ their incontrovertible ‘truth’.

  5. alaspooryorick Says:

    pardon me, but we still have “undesirables.” They’re in prisons, psychiatric wards, hospital quarantine, methadone clinics and homeless shelters. For over 10 years I’ve lived with a treatment center for drug, alcohol, and sex offenders. Most are OK guys. Remember NIMBY?

    • Tom B Says:

      Thanks for writing what a lot of people were thinking.

    • Zoé Says:

      Ephemeral wrote ‘so called’ which conveyed the meaning of the time she wrote of & this out of the way place.

      As someone w/ multiple physical disabilities since birth who has spent my share of time in children’s hospitals – & later adult ones – I did not take offense at anything in this post.

      Despite – since finally having to retire due to those – having to live on one-quarter of the average Social Security etc.

      I take more offense at saying I am an “undesirable” *now* as per your list – than Ephemeral’s obviously bracketed use of the term in her post.

      You are the person who used the pronoun “they” – as if people with disability etc. are not reading & commenting here. This is thus a confusing criticism.

      Furthermore my grandmother’s sister was murdered by the Nazis in the ‘T4’ program for having a disability & I took no offense at Ephemeral’s antiquated ‘scare quote’ use of the term referring to wrong attitudes of the day either.

      • ephemeralnewyork Says:

        I certainly did not mean to offend anyone or imply that people who are poor, who are addicts, or who have a disability are “undesirable” or no longer part of society. How to treat people who could not take care of themselves was a huge concern in 19th century New York, as it is in 21st century NYC. One solution back then was to build institutions on Blackwell’s Island.

      • Zoé Says:

        Your initial words were perfectly clear & not offensive in the least. (As stated earlier by myself – possibly the lone ‘undesirable’ here 😉 – in my earlier comment… lol…).

        That cities’ children’s hospitals were lumped in w/ the rest is an indication of your intent as non-judgmental. When I was in the pediatric bone ward (orthopedic) at Boston Children’s Hospital in the 70s there was a girl of about twenty who lived there permanently as she had nowhere else to go after they patched her together. She used to go from room to room in her wheelchair w/ her guitar & play Cat Stevens songs. So she was homeless and disabled. I’ve got this.

        As I wrote in my earlier response I felt more othered by someone being ⚡️ freaked out ⚡️by your ‘bracketed’ use of the term ‘undesirables’ in your post – & that they associated anyone of today w/ that term – than your obviously archaic use of the term.

        And to the commenter ‘NIMBY’ is used for elderly/disability housing as well. Hence no one here is immune; since everyone gets older but most people cannot afford to live in a private house w/ servants for the rest of their lives.

        As someone who is Arab (half Arab or – lol – Harab) this reminds me of when people say the word ‘Middle Eastern’ (a place term invented by Aramco in the 1950s so their workers would not be as freaked out by the ancient term ‘Arabia’ & ‘Syria’ & ‘Levant’ & ‘Near East’/’Nearer Asia’) because THEY think the word ‘Arab’ is an insult. Thereby BEING insulting BY thinking that. 😂😂😂

        I repeat there was ZERO wrong w/ your completely in context use of the obviously archaic & laughable term ‘undesirables’ Phem.

        Honestly fellow commenters; this is such an amazing blog by an obviously amazing person. It is basically Ephemeral’s party at Ephemeral’s house. For that reason I really don’t think she should be chastised here ever at all. And especially for zero reason. As my mother used to say: ‘With a little good will’. (She is German – so change ‘with’ to ‘Use’. It’s rude to give commands outside of English – hence ‘With’).

        That’s all… I woke up to this… so now this ‘undesirable’ 😂😂😂 is going to make some coffee ☕️☕️ 🌞

      • Zoé Says:

        *Lol – next people may get super offended at a mention of the word ‘misfit’ re. ‘The Island of Misfit Toys’ in Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Since – let’s be honest – they are essentially disabled toys. Unloved. Forced to live on an island.

        The outrage & comments about “NIMBY” should have been in the recent “trash” thread. The streets of NYC were far worse than any of these institutions.

      • Tom B Says:

        Zoe, I understand your point, “undesirables” paints a very broad negative stroke that included people who didn’t have a choice in life.

  6. Blackwell’s Island, Edward Hopper – This isn't happiness Says:

    […] Blackwell’s Island, Edward Hopper […]

  7. David H Lippman Says:

    That’s a really wonderful painting.

  8. Zoé Says:

    Wow… what’s so interesting about this to me is how his other paintings of less outwardly tragic scenes – people dining etc. – are portrayed so darkly & almost dystopicly.

    Yet in contrast this tragic place is painted in a cheerful way… almost like a brightly coloured wooden Fisher-Price type village toy set for children.

    I wonder if those were conscious decisions he made. Perhaps done to heighten viewer perception & create some contrast between the external/superficial facade of a place/scene & the internal emotions/landscape of the inhabitants of those scenes.

    Hence this place so loaded w/ sadness & tragedy has received the most cheerful treatment I have ever seen from him.

    • Zoé Says:

      *It’s like everything that’s going on *outside* those buildings is happier than the tragedies inside that we can’t see – including this bright blue swimming pool colour river another commenter mentioned.

    • David H Lippman Says:

      I took my daughter Wallis to Roosevelt Island once because she wanted to play in a playground, and I knew they had one. It was great…it had these voice tubes that went from one side of the playground to the other, so she organized all the other girls her age into a “secret club” and they spoke secret messages to each other through the voice tubes. She loved the view and the playground.

      • Zoé Says:

        I thought that concept did not really work David. Like holding a paper cup against a wall or something. (I’m struggling to recall things we did in childhood in the dark ages prior to 24 hour tv & internet… A cup & a string…).

        Please explain. Or provide a link. What was the proper name for these? Who used them? How does it work? They were metal? Are you sure it was not a Marcel Duchamp sculpture? Lol…

      • David H Lippman Says:

        The pipes were voice pipes of some kind…like sound-powered phones in the Army, and they worked. Wallis and her new pals talked to each other through them.

        She’s still very cute. Only now she’s 21 years old and will get her B.S. in Computer Science and Theater at Colby College in Maine in 20 days.

        We were looking at some photos of her as a little kid, and asked, “What happened, Wallis? You used to be so cute.”

        She shrugged, and said, “I got cuter.”

      • Zoé Says:

        Lol. She sounds really funny also. Congratulations on the upcoming graduation/degree. (Can academia come up w/ another abbreviation other than BS?! Lol). InshaAllah (= God Willing. Don’t want to fly in the face of God). That is such a great age. (I was married at her age! The horror… lol…).

        Now I have to look up “sound-powered phones in the army” (*makes fist in mock anger & rolls eyes*)

      • David H Lippman Says:

        My daughter is a genius…she has many abilities, but her best is being able to put me in my place. She says she can do it so well, because “you make it so easy, Daddy.”

      • Zoé Says:

        PS: Your daughter sounds so cute! And you get a little gold star for being a good dad ⭐️

  9. Zoé Says:

    Thanks Tom!

    I was going to write again to alaspooryorick & you again to say that I understood where her initial point was coming from & your reply to her also. That I perceived we were all coming from the same place ultimately. (Ephemeral & us three troublemakers in her thread 😉)

    I don’t want to antagonise anyone. My inner mother bear came out for Ephemeral. I think the devil may use comment threads for creating division in the world now – lol.

    Your comment is appreciated. As was your earlier one. I hope alaspooryorick will still engage w/ me here! The leaves have just come out on the trees here – so let’s turn the page/leaf. ☕️☕️☕️☕️ 🌲🌞🐬

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