Slicing into the East River, flanked by Queens and Manhattan, Roosevelt Island should be a destination. Plenty of people take the tram from Manhattan's East Side, but unless they live, work or go to school on the island, there is little else to do, except take the tram back.
Four decades ago, state planners envisioned something very different. Where there is now wild growth and a relic of a smallpox hospital on the southern end, they began work on a memorial to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Fittingly, what was then called Welfare Island -- reflecting its use as a site for rehabilitation hospitals -- was renamed for Roosevelt.
The eminent architect Louis Kahn was commissioned to design the memorial, and his concept was simple and elegant. Drawing inspiration from Roosevelt's defense of the Four Freedoms -- of speech and religion, and from want and fear -- he designed an open "room and a garden" at the bottom of the island. Trees on either side form a "V" defining a green space, and leading to a two-walled stone room at the water's edge that frames the United Nations and the rest of the skyline.
Unfortunately, the project never got much further than that. The near-bankruptcy of New York in 1975 intervened, and the memorial was given up, until now.
Jessica Lappin, who represents the Upper East Side and Roosevelt Island on the City Council, wants to give it another go. The issue, again, is money. The state, which owns the island and expects its budget to be short more than $4 billion next year, cannot commit large sums. So far, an attempt by the nonprofit Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute to pay for the memorial has raised only about $6 million of an estimated $40 million needed. And if the memorial is to be built, work will need to begin in the next few months, at the same time building starts on an adjacent 10-acre park.
There's a magic to the project. That the task is daunting makes it worthy of the man it honors, who guided the nation through the Depression, the New Deal and a world war. As for Mr. Kahn, he died in 1974, as he passed alone through New York's Penn Station. In his briefcase were renderings of the memorial, his last completed plan.