Like a lot of New Yorkers, Governors Island is between jobs. Its career as a military installation ended in 1996, and its aspirations to become the city’s next great park haven’t quite taken hold. So for now it’s merely a magical place to visit—a romantically dilapidated 172-acre disk of fallow real estate, a desert island seven minutes by boat from the glimmering palisade of the financial district. On a map, it resembles a watermelon pit shooting out from between the thumb of Brooklyn and the index finger of Manhattan. The views from its edge are almost preposterously vivid. If you saw a character in a movie lying on the grass, practically within hand-holding distance of the Statue of Liberty, you would swear that the scene had been digitally enhanced—unless you knew Governors Island.
Much of it is a succession of ghost towns. Fort Jay and Castle Williams, both owned by the National Park Service, recall the days when the island was New York’s first line of defense against foreign invasion. A historic district of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century military buildings resembles a college campus after finals—gracious, weather-beaten, and empty. Liggett Hall, a long and narrow McKim, Mead & White creation from 1929, cinches the island at its waist, and even the apartment blocks standing ready for demolition have a weedy, postapocalyptic charm.
Eventually, the island will be cleaned up, master-planned, landscape-architected, and redesigned by the Dutch architectural firm West 8 (two principal features: a man-made mountain rising above the landfill flats and a shoreline boulevard for cycling and strolling). Meanwhile, it feels like an artists’ playground, a beguiling place to spend a summer Sunday. The arts organization Creative Time has colonized the grounds with temporary installations: a sculpture in light by Anthony McCall flickers in a chapel, and a massive wind chime by Klaus Weber dangles from a tree, clanging soulfully in the harbor breeze. On the lawn near Liggett Hall are eighteen holes of miniature golf, each the occasion for a fanciful, colorful sculpture. Wheel a bike onto the ferry or pick one up on the other side and make for Picnic Point, a shiny new emerald lawn boasting fire-engine-red hammocks and one of the vastest panoramas in town.