The tiny island in New York City that nobody is allowed to visit


Yep, that’s me. You’re probably wondering how I ended up in
this situation. To see how I got here, we first have to talk
about islands. You may not realize it, but New York City
is full of them. Manhattan itself is technically just one 13.4-mile-long
island. You’ve also got Governors Island, Liberty Island, as well as Staten Island. But there’s one island in New York that
you may not know about, and no, it’s not the tiki bar Jade Island, which is fabulous by the way — do yourself
a favor and try the pu pu platter. It’s called U Thant Island. And it’s one island in New York that nobody
is allowed to visit. It sits in the East River, right below Roosevelt
Island near the UN headquarters, and for something so tiny has a pretty fascinating
history. In 1892, construction of an underground rail
passage began that was meant to connect Manhattan to Queens
via a tunnel under the river. Builders had to drill through the granite
under water, and that excavation produced excess landfill,
which accumulated and eventually produced a tiny mound of rocks, or as we in the biz call it, an island. The island was originally named Belmont Island,
after August Belmont Jr., the man who financed the construction project. The original tunnel is now used by the 7 Train. And as for the island, minus the occasional
tanker collision, up until recently has had a pretty uneventful existence. Then an organization called the Peace Meditation
at the United Nations, a Buddhist group that followed spiritual leader, prolific artist, and super-ripped dude Sri Chinmoy, leased
the island from the city in 1977. They rechristened it U Thant Island to honor
the third secretary general of the UN, a former Burmese diplomat named U Thant, who was a friend of Sri Chinmoy. They also did some light landscaping and erected
a 30-foot metal “oneness arch.” But they were only allowed to visit a few
times a year because of the heightened security around
its neighbor the United Nations. All remained peaceful on U Thant until 2004,
when New York City hosted the Republican National Convention. A filmmaker and artist named Duke Riley decided
to protest by rowing a boat out to U Thant in the middle of the night, unfurling a giant glow-in-the-dark flag from
the navigation tower that’s on there, and declaring it a sovereign nation, before being apprehended by the Coast Guard. So I called the New York Office of Land Management
and tried to schedule a visit. Hey, I wanted to call and see if it’s at
all possible to set up a time to go visit U Thant Island on the East River? Oh, it’s not. At all, like, for anybody? I did some checking, and he’s actually right
— nobody is allowed to visit U Thant Island. Turns out it’s now a protected sanctuary
for migrating birds, including a colony of double-crested cormorants
that nest in the “oneness arch.” So you can’t actually go on it, but I still
wanted to get as close as I could. Despite a total lack of experience and a quickly
approaching thunderstorm I jumped in a canoe and headed out onto the
lovely East River. We paddled through the water, passing Williamsburg
and Roosevelt Island, until we finally saw it in all its glorious, tiny
splendor. To most people, it may look like just a pile
of rocks in a filthy river. And … I guess it sort of is. But there’s also something kind of wonderful
about it too. Being up close to it made me realize that
there’s something special about U Thant. Amidst the hustle and bustle and millions
of people, there’s this 125-year-old speck of land tucked away from— So I learned a thing or two about what not
to do when your canoe starts tipping over. And as it turns out, I sort of did make it
onto U Thant Island after all. Granted, it was in an effort to not drown
in the East River, but I think it technically still counts. I didn’t die, which was good, and I’m
glad I was actually able to see U Thant close up. But for now, I think I might just stick to
this island, which is a little bit more my speed.

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