Barely poking out of the East River off the coast of Manhattan is tiny U Thant Island. Artificial island is 100 by 200 feet (30 by 60 m) in size and located in the East River, just south of Roosevelt Island. It lies midway between the United Nations Headquarters at 42nd Street and Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City and is legally part of the borough of Manhattan and of the coterminous county of New York.
Scrap of land didn’t even exist until the late 1800’s when a trolley tunnel was dug beneath the East River, connecting Manhattan with Queens. As part of that construction project, a shaft dug into the granite outcrop known as Man-o’-War Reef to reach the tunnels produced excess landfill that built up the reef and created a small island. Steinway died before his tunnels’ completion, and financier August Belmont Jr. finished the project in 1907. Belmont Island, named after the financier, became the legal name of the island. The tunnels, which pass directly beneath the island, are still used by the IRT Flushing Line (7 and <7> trains), and are now part of the New York City Subway system.
Initially the freshly born land was named after the financier who finished the tunnel, August Belmont Jr. A group called the Peace Meditation at the United Nations, which included UN employees and followers of the Buddhist guru Sri Chinmoy, adopted the speck of land in 1977. Leasing the island from the state of New York, the group renamed it after the Burmese former UN Secretary General U Thant, Chinmoy’s close friend. The island features a skeletal metal arch of “oneness” to remember the leader. To maintain planted greenery, the group was allowed on the island just once or twice a year, but increased security ended visits to U Thant by the mid-1990s. Although not its official name, U Thant Island remains the land’s common moniker.
Recent history of U Thant Island
During the 2004 Republican National Convention, local artist and filmmaker Duke Riley, who has traveled to various abandoned islands around the New York City area, rowed a boat with a friend to the island under cover of darkness, proclaimed it a sovereign nation and hoisted a 21-foot (6.4 m)-long pennant depicting two electric eels from the island’s navigation tower. On their return voyage in daylight, they were apprehended by a United States Coast Guard boat but were not arrested. The entire incident was videotaped for a piece Riley titled Belmont Island.
The islet is managed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and is currently protected as a sanctuary for migrating birds, including a small colony of double-crested cormorants. Access is prohibited to the public. The reefs in the waters surrounding the island make it a popular spot for boats fishing for striped bass.