Wednesday, April 30, 2008
I see Governors Island nearly every morning when I walk over the Brooklyn Bridge on the way to work, though it was a while before I even knew what it was. The island intrigued me for a long time, especially when it was barred to the public: a low wooded island with a few buildings scattered on it, and a massive octagonal white structure with vertical black bars on its sides. The white octagon was so somber and impressive that I thought it must be a monument of some kind. (I only learned later that it provides ventilation for one of the tunnels under the East River.) During the winter, when I walked home over the bridge after dark, it was eerie to see only one or two electric lights on the island. The island was an oasis of quiet and darkness, only a few hundred yards from the glowing glass towers of the financial district. Once the island was opened to the public (though only during the summer, and for limited hours), I tried to get there once or twice a year on the ferry. My favorite spots were the round fort at the island’s corner, with its walls of soft red brick and deep embrasures, the broad sloping meadow that spreads out from the second, star-shaped fort, and the long row of deserted frame houses where officers used to live. Cicadas shrilled in the hot grass, and Canada geese stalked along the footpaths. Governors Island is one of the most peaceful spots I know in the city. I feel a sense of connection there, so it was a little strange to read in The Wisners in America that Governors Island was the first place in the New World where my ancestor Johanes Weesner lived. He and about 10,000 other Swiss soldiers arrived in New York around 1714 were “camped” on Governors Island for several months before finding new homes.