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City Living: Roosevelt Island offers laid-back island life in Manhattan's backyard

Visitors to Roosevelt Island often compare it to a typical suburban town. But unless they can name a suburban town where there is almost no car traffic, a view of Manhattan and Queens is outside everyone's front door and the commute to Manhattan's east side takes five minutes, their comparison just doesn't work.

The two-mile-long, 800-foot-wide island is not suburbia; it is, instead, another one of Manhattan's distinctive neighborhoods with a character all its own.

For many New Yorkers and tourists alike, Roosevelt Island is a relaxing destination for a day trip. They take the tram over and stroll or bike around the island, making stops along the commercial strip on Main Street and exploring its leafy walking paths.

But others, like Mia Adams, consider it the perfect place to settle down.

Adams, who works for the real estate firm Citi Habitats, has helped many clients find apartments on the island. She and her husband are now looking for one for themselves.

"It's an amazing place, so private, so peaceful, she doted. "When we move there we all get rid of our car and walk and bike instead. The island is a great place to raise a family."

However, Roosevelt Island's history wasn't always so picturesque.

Sold to the Dutch by the Canarsie tribe in 1637, it was used then to raise pigs and bore the name Hog Island. From the 1600s to the 1800s the land was farmed by the Blackwell family (the landmarked Blackwell House still stands on Main Street). Hard-pressed for funds, the family sold it for $32,500 to the city in 1828.

Not long after the purchase, the city built a penitentiary (where "Boss" Tweed spent some time), a workhouse, an asylum, almshouses, a city hospital and facilities for patients with smallpox and other communicable diseases.

Before it was renamed Roosevelt Island in the 1970s, it was known as Welfare Island, home to some of the poorest and most oppressed residents of the city. In the 1940s most of the 10,000 people who lived on the island resided in institutions.

It was in the '70s that the landmass was renamed to honor former President Teddy Roosevelt and construction on the first four residential buildings began.

Soon after the buildings were completed, the "pioneers" moved in, lured by affordable real estate prices and undeveloped land.

Just a few months ago, work started on Cornell Tech's 2.1 million-square-foot campus on the former site of Goldwater Hospital at the southern tip of the island.

But residents we spoke with said the upcoming changes don't make them want to leave.

Halstead broker Reva Cotter's parents bought an apartment on the island even before their building was built.

Cotter said she loved growing up here.

"The population was so diverse; many worked at the UN just across the river," she said. "Just recently they had a party in my parents' building to celebrate the 'pioneers' but I always get the feeling that new people, new families, are still always welcomed with open arms."

Island digs, even studios, are usually quite big by NYC standards and there's a pretty good inventory of family-sized apartments.

Expect rental prices of $2,830 for one-bedrooms and $3,800 for two, according to Citi Habitats.

"Apartments go quickly but the real estate scene isn't as crazy as in Manhattan," Adams said, adding: "The summer is when it heats up."

Another plus for renters: Many of the properties have no broker fee attached.

Sales prices are around $1 million for a two-bedroom, $718,000 for a one-bedroom and $525,000 for a studio, according to Citi Habitats.

While newcomers aren't scarce, it's not uncommon for families to stay on Roosevelt Island for generations, locals said.

"Everyone who grows up on the island loves it, no one wants to leave," resident Sebastian Gherardi said. Gherardi is still living in the apartment he grew up in; his brother moved to the Octagon, a luxury rental at the northern tip. "Island life is laid back," he said.