First Lenapes, Now Artists

Early Seventeenth Century and Before
The Lenape tribe use the island, called Pagganck, or “Nut Island,” after its hickory, oak, and chestnut trees, as a fishing camp.

Dutch overseer Wouter Van Twiller buys the island from the Lenapes for two ax heads, a string of beads, and some nails. The Dutch government confiscates the land— now known as Nutten Island—the following year.

After the British capture New Amsterdam, the royal governor is given full rights to the island, hence the name. One uses it as a game preserve, another rents it to farmers, and a third uses it to quarantine immigrants.

The British evacuate the island in April, but come right back in September. They’re not fully ousted until 1783. In the early 1800s, the island becomes a key military base and remains an Army outpost until the 1960s.

The Army begins using landfill from the excavation of the Lexington Avenue subway to add 103 acres to the island’s southern end. In 1909, Wilbur Wright takes off from the island, flies around the Statue of Liberty, and lands again—the first-ever flight over American waters.

The Army leaves the island for good and transfers it to the Coast Guard. It becomes the service’s largest installation and includes high-rise apartment buildings, a Super 8 motel, a Burger King, and a population of about 3,500.

The Coast Guard closes its facilities; all remaining residents are relocated. It’s basically abandoned until 2001, when, just before leaving office, President Clinton declares 22 acres a National Monument. Two years later, it’s sold to the city and state for $1.

The public is allowed on the island for reservation-only guided tours led by the Park Service. The tours are remarkably popular. Each summer, more of the island has become public until now, when it’s one big playground.

2009 and Beyond
They’re back: A Dutch landscape-architecture firm, West 8, has plans for an 85-acre park on the southern half of the island that calls for existing buildings to be demolished, turned into landfill, and re-sculpted into hilly parkland.

First Lenapes, Now Artists