The Memorial Nobody Visits

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms Park is a place apart. Arriving via F-train or tram to the Roosevelt Island Memorial, any visitor will feel immediately isolated, plucked from the surrounding city. It’s unfortunate that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s monument should be built so far away from daily life, accessible only with specific intention and effort. When he addressed the country in his State of the Union speech of 1941, he shared a vision of “a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.” They were freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear–accessible to all.

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These freedoms are engraved in granite at the FDR monument, opposite a bronze sculpture of the president’s head. While the president looks into his island, the words face towards lower Manhattan; they might eventually meet the Statue of Liberty. In a 1973 lecture at Pratt Institute, the park’s architect Louis Kahn said, “I chose it to be a point of departure.”

Across the river is Oscar Niemeyer’s and Le Corbusier’s UN Headquarters, where, one senses, FDR’s freedoms are probably more real. Or, at least, people are busy making efforts towards education and international progress. In a week, they will gather for the General Assembly (at which time the Four Freedoms Park is shut to the public, dissuading would-be snipers). Faraway politicians prepare their own rallying speeches, foreign ministers practice their handshakes.

Little may be really resolved at the UN, but movement is palpable. Niemeyer and Corbusier managed to reflect that in the slender design of the building, whose mirrored surface reflects the shifting clouds. On Roosevelt’s Island, everything is still. The blocks of granite that define Four Freedoms Park are blinding white, hot. With the lapping of the East River, the space seems akin to a dystopian beach, hard and contained.

The monument’s final “room,” – where Roosevelt’s bust and the engraving of his speech reside – provides some relief. The main attraction of the monument, it is reachable by a set of stairs and a grassy runway, or via framing walkways. Once at the end of the island, visitors can sit on a piece of bench-like stone and look out onto the water. The pamphlet-writers of Roosevelt Island did themselves a disservice when they called it a room; it’s more like a giant window. Here, freedom rings in the rushing cars and calling birds. The water and city somehow merge.

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Employees in blue shirts stand under a tent at the Park’s entrance with informational material and memorabilia. They’re here all year round, every day but Tuesday. A youngish woman in a khaki safari hat says Saturday is the busiest it gets. “We might get up to 1500 today.” On Monday, she predicts they’ll get more like 100.

In one nod to modern life, there’s a food truck at the memorial, serving vegetarian fare. “I’m lobbying to have it changed,” a bearded worker says. “This one gets pretty old.” Visitors aren’t allowed to eat on the memorial, though its bright green grass seems picnic perfect. “There are bunch of rules we have to enforce,” he explains. “No eating on the promenade, no climbing on the monument…this place isn’t exactly family friendly.”

Rather than wondering about FDR’s monument, most people ask this guide about the building at the opening of the park, a dilapidated structure with cautionary signs all around: “NO TRESPASSING Structure is unstable.” It was a smallpox hospital designed by James Renwick Jr., a neo-Gothic architect of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, on 5th and 51st. The hospital is overgrown and held together by metal poles, creepy in both appearance and history.

Roosevelt Island used to be called Welfare Island. Before that it was Blackmill Island, and before that, Haag Island. “It has a pretty morose history for the most part,” the male worker says, adding that he took his job at the monument because it’s easy. “Initially they said we would do work on development and education, but mostly we stand around.”

Does he like the monument? “I’m not Louis Kahn’s biggest fan,” he says.

If Four Freedoms Park is meant to be a celebration, it appears as exactly the opposite. The UN Building does a better job of that. Instead, the Park is a place for reflection, an isolated spot where we realize the bigness of the city surrounding us, and how much movement we are privileged. The first leaves on the trees lining the monument have yellowed and fallen, boats are out on their last hurrah. The air is fresher and, 100 feet from the tip of the island, a rock with cormorants seems a mirror of us tourists, sitting and chatting, flying off to get food when the wind feels right.

Ella Riley-Adams (Founder, Editor-in-chief) comes from a small town in Southern Oregon. She enjoys champagne, soccer and swimming in ponds. When not immersed in Sarah Lawrence affairs, Ella works for NYC marketing and tech blog The New York Egotist and The Faster Times. Follow her on twitter @ellarileyadams.

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