I'm a freelance writer/photographer living in the East Village neighborhood of New York City.
Published May 27th 2010
Governor's Island is New York City's biggest ongoing art project. Every spring the island opens to the public for a glorious span of fun and frolic, and the 2010 season promises to be its most dynamic to date with an increasing array of activities, festivals, and performances for all ages. Best of all, the vast majority of them are absolutely free.
The history of the island goes back to the 1600s when Wouter Van Twiller purchased it from Native Americans as his private residence in a real estate deal that is second only to the one that bought Manhattan. At that time, Native Americans called the island Pagganck, or Nut Island, because of all the oak, chestnut, and hickory trees that grew there.
The island became known as Governor's Island after the British takeover of New Amsterdam and was then after used almost solely as a military outpost because of its strategic location. (During the Civil War, the Union Army imprisoned captured Confederate soldiers there.) During subsequent years, armies were stationed and trained there, and by the 1960s, the U.S. Coast Guard had full ownership of the island.
Today, Governor's Island belongs to New York City. It was sold by the federal government in 2002 and has since become one vast and tranquil public playground—roughly 172 acres of open space. Many of the historic buildings have been refurbished to accommodate visitors, and the city offers free daily ferry service to and from the island all season long (usually on the half hour during peak times—check the schedule).
Governor's Island is also home to the Figment Festival, a weekend-long art installation that kicks off on June 11. Expect heavy ferry crowds, but once you make it past the pleasant 8-minute journey, there is plenty of room to fan out and grab a pristine (and private) picnic spot. This year Figment promises a huge sculpture garden, tons of art exhibits (inside former residences) and the ever-popular artists' made mini-golf course. Much of the art is interactive and plenty of it focuses on children and families. Beginning this year, the Lower Manhattan Arts Council has sponsored 20 visual and performance art residencies on the island complete with access to exhibit space that will be opened to the public.
Also new this year is the Lincoln Center Festival. Beginning on the island in July, Lincoln Center is sponsoring 45 performances taking place over 18 days, including The Demons, a 12-hour "marathon" play by Peter Stein that is based on Dostoyevsky's novel. Other festival highlights include puppet theater, musical performances by Yo La Tengo, and at least one Serbian punk band.
Other regular programs and festivals that will likely return this season are: weekend arts and crafts classes for kids sponsored by Manhattan's Children's Museum of the Arts; lecture series' given by the National Park Service and CUNY; open visual arts exhibits by Creative Time, 4 Heads, and the Sculpture Guild; dance performances; music festivals; the Governor's Island Art Fair; the New Island Fest; Civil War reenactments; and the Jazz Age Lawn Party.
If your recreational interests focus more on the impromptu, there are always free and low-cost bike rentals on the island (come early!) as well as free kayaking. Enjoy more than five miles of car-free bike lanes. After, stop by the Water Taxi Beach for a cool drink and stay until dark. By August, the "beach" is also the place for one of New York's most beloved music festivals.
If picnicking is more your speed, pack a hearty lunch. There are no stores on the island, but depending on when you arrive, a growing number of food vendors are available that serve up everything from the basics to more gourmet specialties. This year, people can also enjoy Picnic Point, an area previously off-limits to visitors that has unparalleled views of the Statue of Liberty. Visitors can also enjoy free park tours given by National Park Rangers of historic areas like Castle Williams.