I love islands. No matter how small or how close to another land mass, an island always has a feeling of being its own intimate world. When inhabited, there is typically a focused energy, the opposite of suburban sprawl. There is a precious quality to a place where resources and space are very limited and boundaries are well defined. If desirable, this precious quality can reach a fever pitch, where every inch is taken. Like Manhattan.
On the flip side, the uninhabited island is virtually synonymous with remoteness and isolation. And in New York City, you can find both extremes just a stones throw apart.
U Thant Island is New York City's smallest island (100 x 200 feet) and sits only about 1000 feet from Manhattan in the East River, opposite the United Nations and just south of Roosevelt Island. It is diminutive in size but not small in history or fascinating lore.
Belmont Island, as it was known at one time, was built on the granite outcrop, Man of War reef in the East River, from landfill during the construction of the Steinway Tunnels. The landfill was removed from a shaft dug down the reef to the tunnels.
On February 25, 1885, a group of prominent Long Island businessmen incorporated the East River Tunnel Railroad Co. to construct a tunnel railroad from Ravenswood, north of Long Island City, Queens, to Manhattan as a direct connection between the Long Island Rail Road and the New York Central & Hudson River Railroad. At one point, new money was needed to invest in the project and one of the men who became interested was Mr. William Steinway, founder of the Steinway & Sons Piano Co. He owned a sizable part of Long Island City real estate & owned the Steinway and Hunter's Point Railroad which was a local horse car line. By obtaining control of the tunnel company, it would increase the value of his properties. He died in 1896 before the project was completed.
In 1902, August Belmont, Jr. began to take an interest in the project. Belmont was German-born, a banker who had had inherited his fathers vast fortune in 1890 and also a friend of Steinway. The trolley tunnels were finished in 1907 and sold to the city in 1913. The tunnels are still in use today for the number 7 subway Flushing line.
Forgotten for over 70 years, in 1976, a group of employees of the United Nations and followers of Buddhist guru Sri Chinmoy, began to lease the land from New York State for $20 a year. They renamed it U Thant Island, after U Thant, a Burmese diplomat, 3rd UN Secretary General from 1961 to 1971 and friend of Sri Chinmoy. Flowers, bushes and trees were planted and a 30 foot high steel peace arch constructed. Reportedly, there is also a time capsule including pictures and speeches of U Thant.
In 1999, though, the group erected a sign for U Thant, which reads: “Compassion: Home. Dedicated to world peace. Simplicity was U Thant’s life. Sincerity was U Thant’s mind. Purity was U Thant’s heart. His was the approach of serene and illumined dignity."
The island was used occasionally used for meetings and meditation.
In 2004, NYC artist Duke Riley, under the influence of rum, rowed a boat in darkness with a friend, landed on U Thant Island, proclaimed it a sovereign nation and hoisted a 21 foot long pennant flag up the island's navigation tower. On their return to land, they were apprehended by the coast guard but were not arrested. The adventure was videotaped and entitled Belmont Island (SMEACC) - it can be seen here.
Currently, the island is not accessible to the public and is a sanctuary for migrating birds, including a colony of Double-crested Cormorant. I'd like to tell them how lucky they are to have access to U Thant Island :)
Photo Note: I have been obsessed with this small island for ages and it has been in my cross hairs for this website since its inception. Only recently however, on a the pier at Gantry Plaza State Park in Queens, was I able to get a reasonably good vantage point from which to take a photo (upper photo mine, lower photo public archives). I hope to get closer to one day by boat.