Unbuilt New York: Welfare Island

New York Welfare Island by Victor Gruen
Victor Gruen’s plan for Roosevelt Island, New York (Metropolis Books)

In the 1950s, what is now Roosevelt Island (named in 1971 after the wartime president) was arguably underused. Nicknamed “Welfare Island” because of the many alms houses, hospitals and even a lunatic asylum that were situated there, it was not considered a pleasant place to live.

Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect known for his urban revitalization proposals which had inspired the master plans for Fort Worth, Texas and Kalamazoo, Michigan, was commissioned in 1961 to come up with a plan.

Gruen would have paved over the entire island and erected multiple tower buildings to house up to 70,000 people. There would have been pools, tennis courts, shops and schools. The mayor of New York at the time, Robert F. Wagner, was impressed, but others thought the proposal monstrous.

Under Wagner’s successor, John Lindsay, the city opted for a more modest plan by Philip Johnson and John Burgee. It called for more green spaces, better transit access and just 5,000 apartments.

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