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A 24-Hour Stay on the Rapidly Changing Governors Island

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Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week—happy Outdoors Week—Kensinger spends a night on Governors Island.


[The historic structures and new parks on Governors Island see a stream of visitors over the course of 24 hours. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.]

Piece by piece, the ghost town of Governors Island is being reclaimed. Every day, boatloads of visitors temporarily repopulate this former military base, undeterred by a new $2 ferry fee. The island is now open seven days a week, with picnickers, bicyclists, farmers, students, and club-goers exploring its changing landscape. This past weekend, an annual overnight camping trip for City of Water Day provided a unique opportunity to view the ebb and flow of the island's daily life over the course of 24 hours.

Empty buildings still dominate Governors Island, including abandoned churches and homes with their front doors wide open. With each passing year, though, new uses are found for the dozens of structures left behind in 1996, when the Coast Guard shut down their operations here. This summer, the island has seen several new developments, including a second building for the New York Harbor School, an urban farm for GrowNYC, and a new location for Earth Matter's Compost Learning Center, where you can walk a baby goat through the ruins of old apartments. The most dramatic recent addition is a 30-acre park created by West 8 that opened in May. It is Phase 1 of a $250 million master plan to remake the island's public spaces.

In the early morning, vendors and food trucks quietly arrive to Phase 1, setting up stands for dairy-free ice cream and artisanal coffee in a new public plaza filled by low hedges. The first visitors begin to stream in shortly after, staking their turf in the novelty of Hammock Grove, and by the afternoon, the pristine ballfields have been populated by sunbathers. Built on the rubble of several destroyed apartment towers, this new park is still in its infancy, with gleaming surfaces, fresh asphalt, and perfect lawns. In the years to come, as its young trees grow in stature and the man-made hills in Phase 2 are completed, this outdoor space should evolve into a diverting day trip for intrepid visitors. But its design has little connection or relevancy to the real heart of Governors Island, which will always be its historic structures, many of which have been left to decay. Viewed in solitude at 2am, after the last party guests have sailed home, these impressive structures grow in stature, though seen only by the crying seagulls circling endlessly overhead.

The New York Harbor School recently expanded to a second building on Governors Island, taking over this waterfront location on the northern section of the island. 

The school's Billion Oyster Project is being launched from nearby docks, next to the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel air vent, which was designed by McKim Meade and White in 1941.

The Chapel of St. Cornelius the Centurion, consecrated in 1906, has been used for art installations and day camps during the past few years.

It is currently empty and unused, with paint peeling from the walls and its organ gathering dust. Visitors to the island wandered freely into its decaying rooms and chapels.

One room was full of abandoned bibles and hymnals. No plans have been announced for refurbishing this historic space.

The new 30-acre park in Phase 1 includes a terrace and food court near Liggett Hall, another McKim Meade and White design, which was built in 1929. The building appears to be largely empty.

The park includes a series of divergent paths on gentle man-made slopes. Several apartment towers were demolished to make way for this new development.

In Hammock Grove, visitors can relax on 50 hammocks and enjoy a view of lower Manhattan, although few of the structures on Governor's Island are visible from this area.

An enormous playground made of timbers lures in adults and children alike.

In the southern section of the island, Phase 2 is underway. A series of seemingly arbitrary hills will be constructed here, the tallest rising 80 feet. They are built from the rubble of "non-historic buildings" demolished in this same area.

As the sun sets on the northern half of the island, most visitors begin to leave for home, leaving the island to club-goers and other special guests.

Alone at night, the historic buildings of the island take on even more gravity. The only sound, after the DJ shuts down a dance party on the island at midnight, is from seagulls and passing boats.

For City of Water Day, the Metropolitan Waterfront Alliance allows the city's canoe clubs to camp together on Governors Island for one night only. Tents are set up on Colonel's Row, amongst homes built in the 1800s.

In the morning, the aftermath of last night's dance party at the Governors Beach Club is diligently cleaned by workers who arrive before the next wave of visitors.

The club's 20,000 square feet of event space includes a bar and lounge set up in the courtyard of several older residential buildings, which may become a day spa in the near future.

In the houses of Nolan Park, some of which date back to 1810, a variety of small galleries and art spaces have taken up temporary residency for the summer.

At least one of these historic buildings was empty, its front door left wide open in the morning, its interior walls peeling and unrestored.

Original cabinets still intact in the kitchen. The back rooms had been used by a day camp, which left its mark on the walls.

At noon, the Earth Matter's Compost Learning Center opens to visitors. Chickens, rabbits, and goats are raised among the ruins of multiple residential apartment buildings.

Visitors can walk one of the two goats kept here, Cocoa or Butter, while learning about the compost systems set up on the island.

This overgrown, abandoned area is slated for an unknown development project, and is no longer included on the official map of The Trust For Governors Island.

Inside a residential building in the compost zone. The ruins of Governors Island have many stories of their own, but may soon be demolished.
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Governors Island coverage [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]