On Top of It #5 by Lisa Martens
Governors Island: A Decaying Fantasy
“Governors Island looks so insignificant from up here.” — Marge Simpson
There are three small islands forming a triangle in New York Harbor, and all of them contain National Parks. You probably know two of them—The Statue of Liberty, which you may have seen destroyed in many action films—and Ellis Island, where third and fourth generation Americans struggle to find their ancestors’ names in the extensive list of immigrant files.
You’re probably less familiar with that discarded sibling of theirs, the butt of Marge Simpson’s joke in Season 9, Episode 1 of the long-standing show. The less popular, often hidden ghost town screams of unrealized potential. The island was ready to fight in the War of 1812, but its state-of-the-art forts were never needed. So Fort Jay was domesticated, tamed, turned into housing. Castle Williams was turned into a brig for soldiers who had gone AWOL.
Army and Coast Guard children who grew up on the island often comment how nice it was to learn to ride a bike without any cars around. During tours, they interject their histories. Other guests nod in politeness, but who in their trip to New York wants to hear about someone else’s idyllic, suburban childhood? These are children who grew up seeing the city without being able to go to it, and yet, at the same time, the city’s bright lights had always obstructed their view of the stars.
Governors Island is a dystopian world where major events are hinted at but have never come to pass. The reenactments the rangers hold are purely fictitious, a romantic fantasy they make up as they go along. No major Civil War battles took place on this island.
It’s become the perfect place for pretend, for make-believe. The jazz festivals draw a large crowd every year—Flappers and F. Scott Fitzgerald aficionados can come and pretend that the Empire State Building was never built. You can come to Governors Island and not only step back in time, but you can step into your own version of history. When you step off the ferry, you are the world and the sky will never fall.
Let’s die in a war, or, alternatively, let’s dance.
While it’s become an island devoted to art and fantasy, the houses remain uninhabitable, the tap water still filled with gunk, its future riddled with strange politics as both the city and federal government own a slice of the Governors Island pie. Governors Island is an oasis without water, art without infrastructure. It’s the sibling that decided to pursue an MFA instead of law or finance, and now it has no idea what to do. There are goats, organic farms, man-made hills, trails leading to hammocks, art studios in haunted houses, a prison that looks suspiciously like a theater, mini-golf, tree houses, history tours, a school, and condemned buildings that have been on the chopping block for years.
Ellis and Statue Island boast high attendance year round. The city and the federal government must ask—Governors Island, why can’t you be more like your sisters? How often are we going to fund your whimsical projects to nowhere?
But its too busy living its own life, having its own charm, dancing with pearls and bobbed hair, always on the edge of something great but never wanting to commit.
Lisa Martens (Episode 22) currently lives in Harlem. In her past 10 years in New York, she has lived in a garage on Long Island, a living room in Hell’s Kitchen, the architecture building of CCNY, and on the couch of a startup. She grew up in New York, Costa Rica and Texas, and she’s still not sure which of these is home. She completed her MFA in Creative Writing from CCNY. Her thesis, What Grows in Heavy Rain, is available on Amazon. Check out her website here. Follow her on Instagram here.