Roosevelt Island has three news outlets, but no working water fountains

Photo: Hannah Frishberg.

Roosevelt Island, a thin, roughly two-mile sliver of land in the East River between Manhattan and Queens, is home to some 14,000 New Yorkers and three independent local news outlets: The Main Street Wire, a bi-weekly print publication, and Roosevelt Islander and Roosevelt Island Daily, both blogs. The Island, a zip code unto itself, is managed by the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, a state-run entity that oversees infrastructure projects, provides public safety officers, and runs a sports facility called Sportspark, which has a swimming pool and basketball court. The NYPD has jurisdiction there, but no precinct; when trouble arises, cops make their way over from Queens. This setup, unique among New York City neighborhoods, is often fraught, but always well-covered.

Roosevelt Island, historically a place for hospitals, admitted its first residents in 1975. The first local publication moved in, too. “We had something called The Island Eye, in probably ‘76.” Judith Berdy, President of the The Roosevelt Island Historical Society, recalls. “Then there was The Island View, which was in ‘77 to ‘80.” Those fizzled out. In 1981, Jack Resnick, who calls himself “The Roosevelt Island Doctor” launched the Wire. Resnick, an internist who was among the first wave of residents to move to the Island in the ‘70s, launched the paper in response to the Island’s lack of transit—there was a tram to transport people to and from Manhattan, but it stopped running because its insurance ran out, leaving only the Roosevelt Island Bridge.

“We had stuff that was happening and it wasn’t in The New York Times, it wasn’t in the nightly news,” Briana Warsing, 41, the Wire’s current editor and publisher and a Roosevelt Island native, says. The problem persists today. “They misinterpret, they’re wrong,” Warsing says. Among the most common mistakes: depicting the tram as an amusement ride rather than an essential means of public transit; misrepresenting the state’s relationship to the island’s development; and worst of all, confusing it with Randall’s Island, a recreation site run by by the city’s Parks Department.

Today, the Wire has three full-time staffers and delivers bi-weekly print papers from September through June to every apartment on Roosevelt Island, free of charge. It produces calm, copyedited coverage at an even pace, while the two blogs add character and observation to news events: The Daily reflects its gregarious founder in colorful headlines and writing, and the Islander publishing frequent, even-headed quick hits and deep dives on Island goings ons.

There’s plenty of news for all three to write about. Recent Island stories include a deal to keep the Island’s Westview development affordable, and the revelation of the identity of a mystery gunman who shot at an Upper East Side apartment building from Roosevelt Island.

RELATED: As Greenpoint’s Polish community fades, one family newspaper thrives

Sign up for CJR's daily email

The summer’s top story involved water fountains. In May, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, a public benefit corporation created by the State of New York, cut off water to a Wildlife Freedom Foundation stray cat sanctuary near the Island’s south shore. RIOC claimed it did so because the irrigation system tap WFF was using was causing “pressure-related problems.” WFF’s founder and president Rossana Ceruzzi, according to the Roosevelt Islander, says RIOC shut the tap without any notice.

The blogs breathlessly covered the water shutoff. Some members of the Roosevelt Island Residents Association believed RIOC killed the water “as an excuse to remove the cat sanctuary,” the Roosevelt Islander reported on June 8. On the same day, the Roosevelt Island Daily published an article titled “Boohooing & Evasion” directly accusing RIOC of misconduct. On June 25, following much coverage from all three local outlets and some off-Island publications, RIOC restored water to the sanctuary. The Wire was in its off season, so it published a letter Ceruzzi wrote expressing her gratitude to the Roosevelt Island community and the 3,756 people who signed a petition to have the sanctuary’s water turned back on.

 

Among the most common mistakes: depicting the tram as an amusement ride rather than an essential means of public transit.

 

On July 6, RIOC shut down all Roosevelt Island drinking water fountains after controversial tipster Frank Farance, a 59-year-old who had lived on the Island since 1980, informed all three publications that RIOC had suggested that a children’s water fountain might be contaminated during the cat sanctuary debacle. “The last time we had something this big was in the late ‘90s when RIOC was looking to turn the tram off overnight,” says Farance, who is widely known as the Island gadfly. “He breaks stories as a comment,” Rick O’Conor, a 20-year Island resident who started the Roosevelt Islander, in 2007, says; he’ll often check the comments section of his site for Farance news. Despite coverage from all three publications, Roosevelt Island’s water fountains remain inoperable.

O’Conor runs the Roosevelt Islander by himself and covers everything and anything Roosevelt Island. The site harkens back to the scrappy early days of blogging, with an endless scroll and quick hit articles of just a few lines. Initially, O’Conor offered to blog for the print Wire, but then-editor Dick Lutz wasn’t interested. “So I said I’ll do it myself,” O’Conor says.

The Daily started more dramatically, when its publisher broke away from the Wire. In 2015, when Lutz, the longtime publisher of the Wire, retired, there was a feud over the line of succession; David Stone, 70, who had been a freelance contributor for close to a decade, decided to break off and start the Daily in 2016. Stone, a 25-year Island resident and Binghamton, New York native, is very vocal about his extreme distaste for RIOC. “RIOC are Cuomo’s people,” he says. Like O’Conor, Stone runs his online operation independently, save for occasional help from his wife and volunteer freelancers—and with a generous dose of sass.

Surprisingly, there are plenty of ads to go around. The limited Island businesses are incredibly supportive of the local publications, serving as the majority of all three’s funding. “Most advertisers approach me,” says Stone, who reports having a single off-Island advertiser. Billionaire businessman John Catsimatidis, the owner of the Island’s only grocery store, Gristedes, is a big advertiser in the Islander. The publications, none of which charge subscription fees or have paywalls, are profitable—although the blogs have admittedly low operating costs.

It’s a lot of drama in an enclosed community. “There’s a small number of institutions on the Island people care about,” O’Conor says. “It’s small town next to the biggest city in the world where everyone knows too much about each other.”

ICYMI: The awesome teen who blogs about SCOTUS

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Hannah Frishberg is a fourth-generation Brooklynite and freelance reporter. She was previously the Editor in Chief of Brokelyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Post, CityLab, Gothamist, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter @hfrishberg.