Q & A with Roosevelt Island's Misha Cohen

Misha Cohen, a Roosevelt Island resident from 2006 to 2011, spent her first few years while living on the Island immersed in an incredible and important photojournalism project. A photojournalist who studied art and anthropology at the University of California Irvine and journalism at NYU, she often contributed stories to The Main Street WIRE. Cohen is a lover of Roosevelt Island and while here she interviewed countless Island residents and captured their stories, both with the camera’s lens and on paper. The photography, which was done with a medium-format camera, gathers stories of many people we still see on the Island today. Others are of people who are no longer with us or have moved away. Cohen completed the project prior to the closing of the Coler Goldwater Hospital, a hospital campus that was north of the Smallpox Hospital where the new Cornell Technion campus will be. The images speak powerfully to that era on the Island. TheRuin.org was able to talk to Cohen and discuss this project. We’re thrilled to share her images and excerpts of her interviews with residents, as well as this Q & A with you. (For more about Misha Cohen's work, visit her website here.)

Cohen's 2007 Photograph and Bio of Maria Stoica

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

"At 62 [Maria] continues to work faithfully at the Roosevelt Island flower shop, where she started 20 years ago after leaving her then oppressive communist country, Romania. She didn’t speak much English and learned everything from television.

'The hardest thing to get used to in the US is the language, I can’t express the I way I want to express myself and because I have an accent, people are rude. Now I am rude, too. I was shy, but I cannot take it anymore,' she said."

Interview

TheRuin.org: Tell us about these images and what prompted you to complete this project? The photographs are often of individuals and are accompanied by a short biography of the individual. Why?

Cohen: When I first moved to Roosevelt Island in 2006, I was struck by its unique and diverse population. Beyond the diversity that people recall when they think of New York City, Roosevelt Island is a community surrounded by people of different races and backgrounds and it has a significant population of people living with disabilities who are totally integrated into the culture. I would see people rushing off the train and walking down Main Street and alongside would be men and women on gurneys or in wheelchairs, some even on breathing machines. This is something totally unique to our Island and that struck a chord in me.

I wanted to know the stories of many of the faces I saw daily:  the owner of the five-and-dime, the kids on the basketball court, the woman, always with a smile on her face, her breathing assisted by a tube. I realized there had not yet been a photo-story of its current inhabitants. I am a photojournalist and I loved my city, New York City, and I wanted to share this unique part of the City with others. I wanted to document it, even memorialize it in a way. I was in my mid-twenties, and not far out of art school. With a Hasselblad in-hand, I walked the streets and I listened. I would interview those I photographed almost by instinct. I would often make lists and figure out who were the individuals that represented the Island.

Nancy and Sister Barbra, for example. These two women have been on the Island for decades and they love the Island and its residents, yet to many they might be nameless faces in a sea of faces that is New York. In 2006, I was also motivated by the stories of a few young black men that I met in front Goldwater Memorial Hospital. Many of the individuals I met became quadriplegic after being shot. I know many only by nickname, and though I met with them weekly for years, I was never able to take their portraits. But it was these stories that became my passion. Even now as I revisit this work after all this time, my heart aches for the stories that I did not get to share. But I am proud of what I did accomplish and thankful to those who let me into their lives.

John Rochford

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

"John was born in New Jersey in 1934, raised in Philadelphia and spent the majority of his life living in the now trendy neighborhood of Greenwich in Manhattan before he decided to retire on Roosevelt Island….

John worked as a producer for both television and radio-but as he says, 'don’t waste your time trying to define yourself by your job, too many people do that.'

Now he spends much of his time sitting on the benches that grace the east side of Main Street. He is a quiet and simple man very content with his life."

TheRuin.org: What was your favorite aspect of living on Roosevelt Island during your time there?

Cohen: I love Roosevelt Island because it is a refuge from the busy-ness of Manhattan. When you’re here, you’re in the center of it all, surrounded by the gorgeous views of midtown and New York’s iconic buildings. At night I would sit on my couch and look out onto the Empire State Building, always changing her colors, lighting up my night sky.

There is also a peacefulness that comes from living surrounded by water. I would run around the Island’s perimeter and think Here I am in the middle of New York City, filled with millions of people and yet I am the only one on this trail. Across the water in either direction cars were zooming by, high rises filling the sky. I could see the United Nations. The City was busy and bustling, but from where I stood, it was quiet. I could hear the lap of the East River upon the rocky shore. It was ethereal for me. A refuge.

I also loved the Island’s history, that it was ours — it wasn't a tourist destination. The Island is home to her residents. It was the residents I loved, the people from all different backgrounds, living in close proximity. I would get off the Tram and next to me would be a dignitary from the United Nations in native dress, a mom and her kids, a famous scientist, writer, an influential Christian leader, an artist. And there we were in this enclave — a sweet, safe, little community. It is the only place I would live in New York City!

Letisia Sakaria

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

"Her family sent her from her home in Namibia… when she was 15, so she could get a better education. She wants to be a doctor.

'I feel so bad in my country sometimes people are just dying because whenever they want to go to the hospital there is not enough doctors,' she said. 'In the clinic next to my village it takes one month to send people to the big hospital. I love my country and want to help my people.'"

Nancy Brown

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

 

"Nancy has spent almost her entire life on a breathing machine. She got polio when she was seven, missing the vaccine by only three years. In the beginning she was placed in an iron lung, the confinement of the machine didn’t bother her, she said, 'I liked being in the machine. I was happy, I just wanted to breathe.'

In the 60’s she lived at Goldwater hospital on Roosevelt Island with her then husband who also had polio. After living at Goldwater for ten years, the first residential buildings were built on the Island and she moved out of the hospital and into her own apartment.

According to Nancy, the Island is an ideal place to live for people with physical disabilities. 'The Island is a peaceful and comfortable place and it’s easy to get around in my wheelchair.'"

David Simon

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

"David has a spot that he likes to hang out right before lunch — the entrance to the F train on Roosevelt Island. He has a cup that he holds hoping that people will drop some change — he's not homeless, he lives at the Goldwater Hospital, where he has been a patient for the past year because of knee problems, and just wants some of his own spending money."

Sister Barbra

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

Misha Cohen www.mishacohenphoto.com

"Sister Barbra came to Roosevelt Island in the 1970’s, as the Island’s first nun, to establish the parish that was born when people began to make their home on the Island.

She was called to the ministry in her youth; growing up in Sister Cabrini’s church, in Pennsylvania, she was surrounded by her legacy, and admired St. Francis Cabrini’s heart for children and the poor."