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The FDR Custom Tour: More than just a highway

Most post-Boomer New Yorkers only know FDR as a highway on the East Side. But older generations of NYers, or those historically inclined, know that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was perhaps the most dominant political figure of the 20th Century and possibly our greatest President. Recently, the FDR Four Freedoms Park opened on Roosevelt Island.

Roosevelt Island Tram Custom Tour

A View from the Tramway

The Levys’ tour guide corps are always on the lookout for what’s new and unique in our city; we fill our brains with juicy factoids so that we’re ready for your next custom tour. We decided to take the Roosevelt Island Aerial Tram–unique in its own way as the only Tram that’s part of the City’s municipal transit system–to explore the planned community of Roosevelt Island  and the legacy of FDR and his impact on New York.

FDR Four Freedoms Park Custom Tour

Four Freedoms Park

We were fortunate to receive a guided tour from Four Freedoms Park Director Suzy Brown and we got to meet Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel, former U.S Ambassador to the United Nations and the driving force behind the Memorial.

The Four Freedoms FDR eloquently spoke of were part of his  State of the Union speech on Jan. 6, 1941.

Freedom of speech
Freedom of worship
Freedom from want
Freedom from fear

FDR Four Freedoms Park Custom Tour

Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel and LUNY! guides

This memorial to FDR has been decades in the making and its location at the tip of Roosevelt Island offers dramatic views of the East River and  the United Nations. The Memorial’s ultra Modernistic architecture is, in my opinion, stark and uninviting and offers virtually no content or context about who FDR was, or any personal, political or international challenges he faced, however it is a relatively young memorial and there is time for more context to be included.

While FDR was not a New York City native (his home and Presidential Library is in Hyde Park, Upstate New York) he had a NYC residence in an elegant double townhouse on East 65th St, where he lived when he began his long and courageous battle against polio in the 1920’s and lost him the use of his legs. This is the same townhouse where, later on as President, he used as his NYC office. He interviewed many of his potential Cabinet members there. Now it is called The Roosevelt House and is owned and used by Hunter College as a public policy center. When visiting New York during the White House years, FDR would stay at the Presidential suite in the Waldorf=Astoria, which he entered via a secret underground railroad spur from Grand Central.

He had a profound impact on the City both as Governor of New York State and as America’s only  President elected for four terms. His economic policies of the New Deal  brought us out of the Great Depression and his leadership before and during World War II established the United States as the dominant leader of the Allied forces and “Free World” in the post War era. The New Deal’s impact on New York’s infrastructure  and affordable housing was enormous and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) artwork, sculpture, literature, photography and architecture kept many New York cultural workers active and productive. Notable examples include LaGuardia Airport, McCarren Pool, Prospect Park Zoo and many post offices, hospitals and park facilities.

FDR Four Freedoms Park Custom Tour

LUNY! guides with Director Suzy Brown (4th from left) with the UN in background

He was the only physically disabled President. This aspect of FDR was little known to the American public as he was always photographed sitting down (and NEVER in his wheelchair,) or already standing at a podium with heavy steel braces supporting his legs. The memorial has a number of ramps for those with handicapped needs to access the memorial and to share some of the views the rest of us get to experience.

FDR Four Freedoms Park Custom Tour

Four Freedoms Gang Signs Up!

The poignent and powerful message that we learned at the Four Freedoms Memorial is that today, nearly 75 years after FDR’s speech, is that despite victory in World War II and the establishment of the United Nations, so much of the world’s population is still seeking that freedom.

By Mark Levy

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