To drive up FDR Drive—on Manhattan’s east side, on a slick cold night—is to find solitude. You edge between island and water like a cell in a vein. To the left, streets reach like facades to a vanishing point. Buildings of stone and steel and glass, illuminated from within, look like cave drawings depicting our humanity and its dystopia. Row by row and by the thousands, people in a furious, confused sequence are stacked atop one another. They work or eat or drown in the blue light of televisions. The city is illuminated like it’s the world’s carnival, and this can inspire an isolating sentimentality of being abandoned to the future, when humanity has built then ruined everything and itself, when it is left without want and is poorer for it. It is not as cynical as it sounds. These are the mythical happenings that bind you to this place by their sheer wild or gentle force. This is a place alive.
So consumed might you be by this turning shadowbox of life to the west that you might miss, despite the flood lights, the ruin to the east: a mid-nineteenth-century stone hospital across the river, at the southern end of Roosevelt Island. Designed by the venerable James Renwick Jr., the crumbling building is a federal, state, and city landmark that has sat, decaying, for decades opposite ever-ascendant Manhattan. Because it was landmarked in 1976 as a ruin, to wither is its fate.