For the past year, the organizer David Koren had been meeting with residents of Roosevelt Island, contacting artists and planning for his 13th annual Figment arts festival in New York City. “I met David months ago, and everything was fine,” Judith Berdy, a longtime resident said. “And then came the catastrophe of the cherry blossoms.”
Figment NYC, a free, participatory public arts festival that was held on Governors Island for 12 years, moves to Roosevelt Island on Saturday and Sunday for the first time. And the Roosevelt Islanders have mixed feelings. In April, the island’s annual cherry blossom festival attracted more visitors than ever before — around 30,000 people compared with around 1,000 last year. Blame it on social media, lovely weather, and an overwhelming desire to take a selfie with a blooming cherry tree.
Huge crowds forced the tram to shut down and the bridge to close, overwhelming the subway platform and leading the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to bypass the stop for close to an hour, trapping residents on the island and leading to general pandemonium.
Though the plans for Figment had been drafted months before, residents suddenly started to worry that the island was not ready for another large festival. The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, or R.I.O.C., which administers the island, immediately scheduled a meeting with police, emergency services, M.T.A. and all kinds of officials to make sure this time things will run smoothly.
Then last Thursday, they held a town hall style meeting to address residents’ concerns. Around 50 very vocal people came out, asking how many portable toilets would be on hand and if extra bus service would be put in place (a free red bus continuously circles the two-mile-long island). But most of all they wanted to know whether this was the beginning of the end of their peaceful island habitat.
Susan Rosenthal, R.I.O.C.’s president, didn’t have solid answers to any of those questions quite yet, but tried to talk them down. “This event seems extraordinary to me,” Ms. Rosenthal said of Figment. “Let’s see how it goes before we trash it.”
Stationed on the island, she said, will be 90 police and security officers and an ambulance. Trains will run on a weekday schedule and a traffic detail will be added at the bridge from Queens, though cars — as always on Roosevelt — are discouraged.
The festival could be a test case for large events and would be fun for local residents, said Ms. Rosenthal, who does not live on the island.
Mr. Koren explained that Figment had never attracted anywhere near 30,000 people on Governors Island and could expect — at most — 10,000. But Roosevelt residents noted that it is much easier to get there than Governors Island, with ferry service, the F train, the tram and a bridge all leading to their island paradise. So far, there were about 2,717 people registered for the free event.
Jessica Colangelo, an architect from Arkansas who was busy at Lighthouse Park on the island’s north end last week setting up the main pavilion — a set of swings made from repurposed cross-laminated timber — said 10,000 people would be more than she would have ever dreamed of. “We just started our architectural practice, so any audience whatsoever is welcome,” Ms. Colangelo said.
Mr. Koren was expecting about 120 artists to participate over two days, including a giant balloon project and a poetry event run by residents of the island’s Coler nursing home and rehab facility. Dancing, singing and the playing of musical instruments are all encouraged during the festival.
Some residents weren’t even aware that Figment was heading their way, since hardly any advertising or marketing had been done. Jin Namkung, a nurse from South Korea who has lived here for five months, said she moved to the island because it was “really private. I love living here, but becoming popular is not really welcome. I’m secretly glad that nobody really knows about this place.”
Bonnie Cordova, a teacher from Southern California who retired to the island two years ago, had seen the festival on Governors Island but thought it would be even better here. “It’s a more appropriate space for it,” she said. “It’s more populated here.” She said it would generate much-needed income for restaurants and shops along Main Street. “Businesses don’t do well,” she said, nodding at the sleepy storefronts. “People don’t come and spend money here.”
Mr. Koren was confident that the festival would not overtax the infrastructure. “This is a place for the arts,” he said. “And we have some history of taking an island and making it a place where people enjoy the arts.” Mr. Koren was one of the pioneers who helped put the uninhabited Governors Island on the map for New Yorkers after the Coast Guard moved out. Figment, with its replica of Lady Liberty’s half-buried head, a pavilion made of recycled plastic bottles and whimsical miniature golf course, became a favorite destination for families looking for something fun and free to do on the weekends. It was so successful that it eventually expanded to 20 cities around the world.
When the vibe on Governors Island began to change a few years ago, attracting large paid events, and with plans for more development to help defray the cost of running the island, Mr. Koren began searching for a new venue. He considered Flushing Meadow and Staten Island but had admired Roosevelt Island since the early ’90s, when he saw a Meredith Monk performance staged at Lighthouse Park. Back in 2002, local artists established the Roosevelt Island Visual Arts Association, creating the Island of Art initiative, as a bridge for art between Queens and Manhattan. So it seemed like a natural evolution for Figment.
“But it’s very different doing this on an island where 12,000 people live,” Mr. Koren said, “as opposed to a place where nobody lives.”
To most New Yorkers, Roosevelt Island remains a mystery. According to Ms. Berdy, the president of the historical society there, the place was originally called Minnahanonck — “nice island” — and was filled with lush forest. After the Europeans arrived, the 142-acre, 800-foot-wide strip in the East River was named Blackwells Island and became home to the New York City Lunatic Asylum and a prison whose most famous temporary residents included Mae West (obscenity), Emma Goldman (inciting riots) and Boss Tweed (corruption).
In 1921, it was renamed Welfare Island because of the many hospitals that were placed there, including the Smallpox Hospital, whose ivy-covered, crumbling ruins still stand on the island’s south end.
Gentrification came to the island in the 21st century and has brought a whole new breed — tourists, most of whom simply take the tram over, visit Four Freedoms Park on the south end and then head back whence they came. Its unparalleled views of the city stretch from Randalls Island to the United Nations, whose work force helped populate the tall Brutalist apartment buildings (Kofi Annan is one former resident). Nearly half the population here is foreign-born.
“As buildings go up, it changes,” said Esther Piaskowski Cohen, an Australian-born artist who helps run the visual arts association and has lived here since 1985. “The question is, how do we preserve it and also preserve this Island of Art idea and promote it as an art destination?”
Ms. Berdy, who has lived here for 42 years, wants to share the island. “We just don’t want a circus maximus,” she said.
But if Roosevelt Island doesn’t work out for Figment, Governors Island will be there, waiting.
“Figment was well loved by visitors,” said the Governors Island spokeswoman Sarah Krautheim. “And we would certainly welcome them back.”
Through Sunday at Roosevelt Island, https://newyork.figmentproject.org/figment_2019