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An Autobiography: Chapter 40, World Trade Tower

The history of Roosevelt Island was a passion with Reverend Oliver Chapin, and he and I spent many hours in his study and on walks talking about the events and people who had inhabited that historical landmark in the East River. There had never been a play about the Island’s history, and I suggested to Oliver that we develop a production and present it to the residents. Oliver had books that had photos taken on the Island in the 1800s, and with my Yashica camera I copied many of these and made slides. There were 313 slides in the production.

I took countless photos on the Island, including the ruins of historical buildings. The most fascinating structure, of course, was the Octagon. The entrance was boarded up, and Oliver said no one had been inside in more than 20 years. We got permission to enter the Octagon, and when we stepped inside we were frozen in time. Oliver and I both stood there looking up at the spiraling staircase that went into total darkness. The only light we had was my camera, and as we slowly ascended the stairs every few minutes, I hit the flash and for a moment the entire tower was flooded with light. It is difficult to describe our experience.

I took some amazing photos as we fumbled along. We found an old wooden wheelchair and other furnishings that had been left there. There was a small stool, metal frame, wooden top that was definitely from the early days of the asylum. I resurrected that stool and still have it, a reminder of my days on Roosevelt Island. I like to think that Charles Dickens and Nellie Bly may have sat on it during their visits. That stool can be seen in our DVD of the One-Man Show I produced in 2009: Albert Schweitzer: Memoirs from Africa. 

As our project developed, we got more excited than ever, and Oliver said this could be a very important documentary for the Island’s history. I created hundreds of photos, and we decided to make a 90-minute multimedia dramatization. One day, walking down Main Street, I thought to myself that it would be great if we could get photos from a helicopter. 

I talked to Oliver, and he wasn’t too surprised at my idea since he had learned that I would do anything to make the end result dramatic and beautiful. We had no funds to pay for a helicopter, and I told Oliver that perhaps the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, who had a fleet of helicopters, might be willing to help us. So I got on the phone, and before we knew it, we had our helicopter.

The Port Authority owned the 15-acre World Trade Center site, and a date and time was set for us to be at the top of the World Trade Tower. Georgianna or anyone else couldn’t believe it when we told them. It was hard for us to believe it, too, but there we were, “the nearest place to Heaven in Manhattan,” waiting for our pilot to arrive; we had only to wait a few minutes. The pilot introduced himself and said, “I am at your disposal; just tell me where you want to go.”

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World Trade Towers, Serigraphy by Masaaki 

Now we knew we weren’t dreaming. He gave us a tour over Manhattan on the way to Roosevelt Island and on our return. He circled the buildings I pointed out on the Island, and Oliver was never more excited than when we flew close over the Octagon and the other historical ruins. How could he have ever thought he would have this opportunity as part of his studies of the Island’s history. We made a couple runs low over Main Street from end to end. How exciting that was to look down on Island House, my home. I took movies as well as still photos.

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Inmate at the insane asylum. 

Georgianna wanted to be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime event, so she came up with a “Georgianna-scheme,” whereas she would be the star in the Roosevelt Island movies. She dressed in her Hollywood best, in a full skirt, and went to the roof of one of the buildings on Main Street and waited for our helicopter to arrive.

Well, a helicopter did arrive, but it wasn’t ours! On the east side across from the Island is a helicopter port for rides to the airports, and they flew over the Island. So when she saw that helicopter coming she went into her “Eleanor Powell” dance, with her skirt swirling and arms waving. The pilot took advantage of the spectacle and circled Georgianna a couple times so his passengers could see the show! He probably told them, “Just another crazy New Yorker out for a lark.”

Georgainna was very pleased with herself and figured I got some great movies. When I got home, she was all excited and asked, “How did you like my dance?” She felt foolish when the truth came out, but we laughed about it and she said, “I hope those folks enjoyed my dance. How often does someone get to dance for helicopter passengers in New York?”

The multimedia dramatization Oliver and I produced was called The Waiting Island, and we presented it in March, with a return engagement in April, in the Good Shepherd Community Room. Then, on June 16th, we presented it in Manhattan for the United Hospital Fund of New York and the Medical Archivists in New York City. The three readers were Rev. Chapin, his daughter Joy, and Georgianna. All performances were packed with enthusiastic audiences.

Excerpts from the narrative will give you an idea of the scope of the production. You can see why folks were on the edge of their seats throughout the moving drama:

…His girlfriend, Geesje, was ordered to be stripped naked to the waist and conducted to the whipping post, then banished from the island for 30 years. So ended an “X” rated interlude on the Island of Pigs.

…On October 12, 1776, dwellers on our island watched as several thousand Redcoats on flatboats moved up the East River and through Hellsgate to attack Washington in the Bronx.

…Crime was the number one problem for New York in 1828. “Get the criminals out!” demanded the city. Within three months after the Blackwells sold the island to our city fathers, 136 prisoners had been brought here to begin quarrying stone for the city’s new penitentiary.

…The cells were being unlocked and blue and white striped figures slouched by, automatically forming into a line, myself a part of it. More harrowing still was the daily degradation of being marched in lock step to the river, carrying the bucket of excrement accumulated during the past 24 hours. Then breakfast: a slice of bread and a tin cup of warm brown water. … I was locked up in the dungeon. … I had to lie on the cold stone floor … the dampness of the walls made the prison a ghastly place. Worse yet, the complete shutting out of light and air, the impenetrable blackness, so thick it gave me the sensation of sinking into a devouring pit. The Spanish Inquisition had come to life in America.

…And the poorest of the poor ever to be brought to the Alms House were the children. The little ones nobody wanted. Children found in doorways, often exposed to bad weather, finally reached the Almshouse so sick as to be beyond recovery. So the little ones died like flies on our Waiting Island. If they did live, they were given an automatic birthday: July 4th. They grew up here, finding their friends among the arrested “street Arabs” of New York, kids who’d been forced on the street to beg and steal. Boys and girls five to fifteen. “Some of the girls were pretty, too … all the worse for them!”

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A forgotten child at the Alms House. 

....December 23, 1969. 141 years of history ended as the city signed our Island to the state for 99 years. … Roosevelt Island is the first community that sets out to mix, not only the black and white people, but the rich and the poor.

The drama ended with these words:

…North of the Island in the midst of dangerous waters there was once a rock: Gallows rock; perhaps they hanged people there. Gallows rock is gone now and a lighthouse tower replaces it …we are the light of the Island. If we let it shine, even the defeated and disillusioned may be surprised and helped. For this is our Island, our city, even our nation waits. The End is Our Beginning.  

Don’t Miss the Next Chapter: The Waiting Island