You leave the chrome and glass skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan. The ride is over almost before you savour the sensation of being afloat; it takes almost as long to tether the ferry to its moorings as it does to make the trip. But the ferry to Governors Island at the southern tip of Manhattan is a kind of time-travel machine. That short voyage transports you across the decades – centuries, even.
It transports us back to 1637, when a canny Dutchman named Wouter van Twiller bought the island from Native Americans. When it changed hands, the British reserved the land for the exclusive use of the governors of Manhattan.
The island played a role in the US’ War of Independence, first fortified by the American revolutionaries, then retaken by the British in August 1776. In the 20th century, it was used by the US Army (Frank Sinatra came here for his army medical: he was turned down because of a perforated eardrum).
When the Coast Guard closed its base in 1996, President Bill Clinton declared that nine hectares of the island should become a national monument. Six years later, President George W Bush and Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that the rest of the 70 hectare island would be bequeathed to the people of New York.
Then the machine stops in 2017. We emerge to see a very 21st century adventure in rethinking urban space.
Governors Island is now home to jazz age-style parties and exhibitions of art and sculpture.
It’s a beguiling scene, recently enhanced by manmade hills, erected and landscaped in a very contemporary style by descendants of those early inhabitants – Dutch architects West 8. Otherwise, the island most resembles an Ivy League campus, dotted with red-brick buildings of several decades ago – minus the students. There are bicycles and pedicabs to make your way around. Artists beaver away on sculptures in a place that more than occasionally seems like a giant summer art school.
I encountered sculptures that looked like an homage to artist Alexander Calder. In that setting, even the bright red park benches seemed like installation art. As I took a break on a rocking chair on the porch of the yellow and white house, usually home to touring exhibitions, I imagined myself the owner of a benign Southern plantation with toiling artists, not cotton pickers. The relative solitude of a weekday visit has much to be said for it.
I spent my time on Governors Island in a daydream, caught between the view of historical sights such as the prison of Castle Williams, the Admiral’s magnificent residence and the new attraction, The Hills. The island’s security personnel often have to wake up visitors who have fallen asleep in the hammocks scattered around The Hills. Reminder: this is New York. One hill has very long slides guaranteed to delight children, another has boulders that can be used to race up the hillside. A bizarre cabin by the artist Rachel Whiteread is perched precariously on the hillside like the stage set for an Ibsen play.
At Outlook Hill, there are priceless views of the Statue of Liberty. Close up, it appears to be a giant neighbour looking over the fence, awestruck as the rest of us by an incongruously peaceful yet spectacular Manhattan.
Governors Island is open to the public from late May to late September. govisland.com