Neighborhood Tour

Is NYC’s Governors Island Shedding Its Tranquil Past for a Glitzy Future?

by Kerri Allen
Island The view of Lower Manhattan from Island Oyster on Governors Island. Photo courtesy of Island Oyster.

The tiny spit of land in New York Harbor was originally known as "nut island" to its Lenape inhabitants. For many centuries until 1996, it was a base for various American armed forces: the Continental Army, the United States Army, and the Coast Guard. Today, Governors Island is home to a national park, a high school dedicated to harbor activities, cultural and charitable institutions, and, increasingly, commercial enterprises. A few opinionated New Yorkers weigh in on the evolution.

GOVERNOR'S ISLAND, New York - Once home to little more than a few empty army barracks and an 18th-century fort, Governors Island in New York Harbor may soon become the glitziest spot in New York City. This summer, a sprawling Italian day spa and a Tulum-inspired beach club opened among the 172 acres of rolling green fields that long sat quietly in the waters between lower Manhattan and western Brooklyn, a short ferry ride away from the urban jungles.

The transformation began in 2003 when Governors Island opened to the public via ferry, and has been drawing visitors ever since. It has been the bucolic home for the respectably swanky Jazz Age Lawn Party and the eponymous Governors Ball music festival, which launched in 2011, then relocated off the island the following summer, never to return. In 2017, Alex and Miles Pincus, whose Crew restaurants made dining on the water cool in Manhattan and Brooklyn, opened Island Oyster, seriously upping the ante on the island's food and beverage offerings. And in 2018, glamping arrived, courtesy of Collective Retreats, transforming Governors Island into an overnight affair. This June, the powers that be attempted to amp it up again, welcoming a two-day LGBTQIA+ celebration called Pride Island with a headline performance by Brooklyn-born rap superstar Lil’ Kim.

These new venues, events, and recent shift from summer-only to year-round operations are poised to change the island's reputation as a quiet and quirky getaway into yet another place to see and be seen.

Or could both possibly co-exist? Fathom checked out some of the new spots and checked in with a few outspoken New Yorkers (is there any other kind?) to weigh in on the island’s past, present, and future.

The Jazz Age Lawn Party. Photo by Kerri Allen.
The crowd at Jazz Age Lawn Party. Photo by Kerri Allen.

A City Built on Change

Jeannie Houchins is a communications executive who has lived in New York City for over a decade. For many years she called Tribeca home, where ferrying over to Governors Island was a no-brainer. “It was closer than going to Central Park — which was a beast to get to and is always full of people,” she explains. “The first time I went to Governor’s Island was for the 1920s jazz party. It seemed like a quintessential New York thing. Now I go because it seems like a vacation escape from the city. The fact that it’s a nice journey and you have to travel by water is its own allure.”

I first went to Governors Island in 2010 to see M.I.A. perform (this was the year of “Paper Planes”). But for most of the 13 years I lived in Park Slope, Brooklyn, I didn’t consider the island very often. I lived in walking distance of Prospect Park, and that was my escape from the city. But after moving further northwest to Cobble Hill three years ago, the proximity to the Governor’s Island ferry created the same accessible allure that Houchins enjoyed for so many years.

She started visiting the island when there was little there, nary a food-truck taco to be found. She would bring a chair, a good book, and quietly picnic for the day. But she doesn’t mind the vibe shift. “I’m a fan of change. That’s what New York is built on. I think it’s fantastic that the city has invested time and money and opened it up year-round.”

Houchins is planning a visit to the new QC NY Spa and is ready to check out the Tulum-style Gitano Island restaurant and beach club (which relocated here after four seasons in SoHo) before it closes in October. “I’ve never been to Tulum, but it’s on my list. I’d be willing to try Gitano Island once, just to say I’ve been. That’s part of living in New York, making sure that you see all that it has to offer, even if it’s a one-time visit.”

In June, my partner and I spent a day at the spa, QC Terme Spas and Resorts’ only property outside of Europe. I expected it to be intrusive to the day-to-day island I’ve come to know over the past few years, but was pleasantly surprised. Tucked away on the northern shore of the island and essentially hidden within three of the old barracks, the new facilities are tastefully designed inside and out to integrate with the island’s feel. Laying in an infinity pool while gazing across the river to the Manhattan skyline is nothing short of magical. But given that I saw glammed-up influencers and bachelorette groups roaming the newly-opened grounds, I can’t help but worry that, over time, it will become too big a draw overall and not a place for restoration and renewal.

The restaurant and beach club Gitano Island. Photo courtesy of Gitano Island.
Photo courtesy of Gitano Island.
Photo courtesy of Gitano Island.
QC NY. Photo courtesy of QC Terme.

Not On Everyone’s Radar

Not all long-time city dwellers have a longstanding history with the island. Or any, for that matter. “If I had heard about it, I confused it for Roosevelt island,” says Jennifer Ibrahim, who divides her time between Kips Bay, Manhattan, and Ditmas Park, Brooklyn. “It wasn’t on my radar.” Though she’s lived in NYC for 20 years, she made her first visit to Governors Island this summer. Ibrahim had been hearing more buzz about it over the past few years, but was hesitant to carve out the time for a visit. “You can’t just jump in the car and go. Being timed to a limited ferry schedule was a barrier.” But after attending this year’s Jazz Age Lawn Party (do we detect a theme?), she and her partner are planning a return to check out QC.

She’s also eager to ensure that Governors Island feels welcoming to all New Yorkers. “I’d love to see more financially accessible options for things to do on the island. We have the money to go to a spa, but others might not,” the financial services executive concedes. “It’d be great if the oyster bar Island Oyster had a happy hour. Cocktails are $17 each!”

While the island has been adding more high-end options, including a glamping stay with the luxury campground Collective Retreats — which I indulged in during the fall of 2019 for more than $300 for one night — there are plenty of low-cost dining options. Picnics (without alcohol) are welcome and encouraged, and places like The Pizza Yard offer a marinara pie for $12; Taco Vista slings two chicken tacos for the same price. The ferries operated by the Trust for Governors Island are free to NYCHA housing residents, military, children under 12 and seniors over 65, and everyone before noon on weekends.

Still, some of this year’s changes feel like the island is setting path towards courting higher-end attractions, which could eclipse the no- or low-cost options that it’s been better known for. And I’m not alone on that.

Glamping on the island. Photo courtesy of Collective Retreats.
Photo courtesy of Collective Retreats.

“I See It Disappearing”

If Ibrahim is a Governors Island newbie, Michael Lawrence could run for mayor of the place. A management consultant, for more than a decade he has lived near Pier 6 on the western shore of Brooklyn, making the trip an easy 10-minute ride. Like Houchins, he was initially drawn to the island as an escape from the city, but has gladly sought out the diverse variety of offerings each summer.

He has attended the inaugural GovBall, Jazz Age Lawn Party several times, run various 5Ks around the island’s perimeter, stayed overnight at Collective Retreats luxury campground, attended the Night of 1,000 Jack-o-Lanterns Halloween event, the folk-acoustic Porch Stomp, various art openings, and already visited the new spa. (If there were a Governors Island punch card, he’d get the next visit free.)

While clearly a fan, Lawrence admits that the last few years have ushered in a new vibe. “I think part of the beauty of Governors Island was the empty land, free of commerce. It was open to all types of people of different means.” Somewhat ruefully, he admits, “It’s definitely changed. At some point over the last five years, it’s tipped toward the free market. If there’s money to be made, people with money will eventually take over.”

The beauty of — and, perhaps salvation for — Governors Island may lie in the 22 acres that are protected as a National Park. Also, two not-for-profits, The Trust for Gov­er­nors Island and Friends of Gov­er­nors Island, are focused on bringing educational and cultural tenants to the his­toric build­ings, and inviting students and climate experts to learn from the island’s envi­ron­ment and water­front loca­tion. Events like the recent City of Water Day Changemaker Station, produced by The Climate Museum, help adults and kids alike engage in climate action, while the beloved Billion Oyster Project is reviving the health of New York Harbor by restoring oyster beds throughout its waters. Anyone can volunteer at their Governors Island location.

These tenuous guardrails and goals may help the quirky spirit of Governors Island endure a little longer. No small feat in the shadow of one of the most dynamic and demanding cities on earth.

An escape from the city. Photo by Kerri Allen.

Plan Your Trip

Ferry Information
Governors Island is accessible via Trust for Governors Island-operated ferries. They run daily from Lower Manhattan at The Battery Maritime Building at 10 South Street, immediately north of the Staten Island Ferry, and on weekends and holiday Mondays from Brooklyn at Pier 6 in Brooklyn Bridge Park, near the intersection of Furman St. And Atlantic Ave., and Atlantic Basin in Red Hook, near the intersection of Pioneer Street and Conover Street. The fare is $4 and free on weekends before noon. There is no surcharge for bicycles. NYC Ferry offers limited service on the South Brooklyn line.

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