Signs of Beautiful Isolation, and Even Spring, on a Walk on Governors Island

On a brisk morning on Governors Island, as winter begins to surrender to spring, the fake palm trees that greet the ferry on Water Taxi Beach appear even more surreal than usual, poking up out of snow above the empty picnic tables.

The ferry pulls in. The sun peeks through bare branches. A handful of people veer left toward the offices of the Trust for Governors Island and various maintenance jobs. The rest of the ferry’s passengers — high school students and their adult keepers — file toward the newly opened Urban Assembly New York Harbor School, housed in a former Coast Guard infirmary.

It is 7:40 a.m. on Valentine’s Day, and Governors Island’s winter population is landing.

On weekends from May to October, the island, a 172-acre former Coast Guard strategic-command station off the southern tip of Manhattan, becomes a great green playground, awhirl with arts fairs and concerts, food trucks and picnic blankets, and up to 10,000 visitors a day.

During the rest of the year, things are a little quieter.

As the students hike past a decrepit library and a castle-like, 200-year-old fort-turned-jail, toward a campus all red brick and white trim and cupolas, the only honking you can hear is from the Canada geese.

Most of the students don’t mind. “I’d rather an empty place than a whole lot of action going on,” said Christopher Retalis, a junior who commutes two hours each way from Canarsie, Brooklyn. “Silence is good.”

The school’s first winter on the island (it shared space for seven years with several other high schools in a cramped building in Bushwick, Brooklyn) has been cold, long, and, for those who stay late, very dark. “If you stayed till the 6 o’clock boat, you had to kind of guess where to step,” said Cullen Palicka. “And the cold burns your ears. It’s like ice shooting at you.”

The sense of isolation can be strong. “Our nurse is leaving at noon for a doctor’s appointment,” the principal, Nathan Dudley, informed his colleagues at a morning faculty meeting. “And tonight there’s a P.T.A. meeting on the other side.” He meant Manhattan.

But conditions have not been that hard. “The sidewalks were always cleared,” said Patricia Tapia, a junior from Fort Greene, Brooklyn. “It was actually better than my street back home.”

Governors Island is shaped like an ice cream cone. The ice cream portion is a National Historic District. Everything in the cone part is set for demolition. There are plans for it, but for now, most of the island has the feel of a vast diorama.

“Occasionally,” Mr. Dudley said, “I get a chance to walk around the island. When I do, I always think, ‘There’s eight million people in the city and 15 million in the area, and I’m walking for 45 minutes and I don’t see a soul.’ Obviously it won’t always be like this, but at this point in time, it’s a pretty amazing thing to be able to reflect on New York City from a place like this.”

Just south of the school is a seven-story apartment building with blown-out, burned-out windows, emanating an oddly slummy vibe. It was once a training building for the Fire Department. Firefighters set apartments on fire, then put them out.

At the back of the building, a metal door gripped by a thorny vine swings open and closed. Disused playground equipment turns to driftwood, and strands of dead goldenrod sprout from the snow like thinning hair.

Where the brown grass shows, goose leavings are everywhere. In front of the old fire station, receding snow has revealed the carcass of a goose, its wings perfectly arched like those of a cutout angel.

Beauty, death, desolation, cut-up poetry. In a depot-like yard, the carcasses of 34 white Daihatsu Hijet micro-pickup trucks, Coast Guard relics, are piled against a chain-link fence like snowdrifts. Seven corrugated-steel shelters painted red, picnic cabanas during the tourist season, stare off at the giant metal dinosaurs of the Bayonne waterfront. At the southern tip of the island, a green plaque at the base of a tree reads “In Memory of Sandra Tarrant Orr, Sept. 1956 – June 1982.”

The only signs of living people are implied — the unseen crews of the tugs and barges plying the harbor. From the Brooklyn waterfront, a church-bell recital floats across Buttermilk Channel — three notes, a minor third resolving to a major.

Up the east coast of the island, in a long, low industrial building, the legend “water fall in paint booth” is written above a panel of knobs and switches. “Decommissioned” is spray-painted in red on three sides of a white rectangular box, 10 feet high and 20 long. The Governors Island Auto Hobby Shop — four bays of emptiness. The Gourmet Annex and Hair Care Center. Another dead goose.

From the island’s slightly raised center, the gleaming metal-and-glass towers of Lower Manhattan appear to rise directly out of a field of white.

In her office at the Trust for Governors Island at the northern tip of the island, the president, Leslie Koch, takes it in.

“It’s the only place in New York with clean snow,” she said.

This is Ms. Koch’s fifth winter on the island, and she has enjoyed it immensely.

“The thing that’s really beautiful is the sunsets,” she said, “the pink glow as you’re leaving your office.”

Apart from the school, which has about 400 students and 50 or so employees, there are only about 40 more people working on the island, Ms. Koch said — for the trust, the National Park Service and the contractors working on projects.

Back at the school, during lunch period, the students are shooting hoops for the first time since December on a half court fringed with snow. Drops of sunlit water fly off the ball with each bounce. Across the courtyard, students in blue New York Harbor School T-shirts and polo shirts fling slush balls at one another.

The afternoon deepens and grows blustery.

As the 2 o’clock boat pulls away from the shore, the fronds of the palm trees stand firm, unruffled by the stiff wind that stirs the bare branches in the trees beyond and smashes waves against the seawall.

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