There Is A Tiny Island In New York City That Nobody Is Allowed To Visit

Discovering new places on planet Earth is an exceedingly rare and exciting phenomenon. There’s a telling generational quote that crops up a lot on Reddit: “I was born too late to explore the frontier, and too young to explore the stars.”

No longer! There’s a man-made island in the middle of Manhattan’s East River, just south of the tip of Roosevelt Island, and it has a crazy history, shifting between wildly different ownerships and names since the 1800s.

The island has had connections with the 2004 Republican Primary, a small sect of Buddhist monks, and the creation of the 7 train tunnel between Manhattan and Queens. Today, it’s called U Thant Island, and there’s a reason for the strange name.

U Thant Island, at first, was named Belmont Island, after the man who financed the creation of the Midtown-Queens tunnel. The island was produced by excess rock and granite that was pushed to the surface as crews of workers tunneled underground to open a path for the 7 train.

For most of the 20th century, nothing much happened on the island, until a group called The Peace Meditation at the United Nations, a Buddhist sect which followed a spiritual meditation leader in New York City, leased the island and named it ‘U Thant Island’ in 1977.

U Thant (which is a real name) was the 3rd Secretary General of the UN, and since the island was particularly close to the UN building, and Buddhists sought to honor him, it all worked out perfectly. A little peace arch sits on the island to this day, as a reminder of its Buddhist heritage.

Then, in 2004, a man named Duke Riley protested the Republican National Convention using U Thant Island. He climbed the small navigation tower, dangling a flag from its heights, and declared the island to be an independent nation.

The 2004 convention, for President George W. Bush, was being held in New York City at the height of the Iraq War. Indeed, it was at odds with the Buddhist notion of a united assembly of peaceful nations.

When you ride the 7 train, you glide directly underneath U Thant island. Though nobody is allowed on shore, you can see it clearly from Manhattan.

The peace arch is a nice reminder of the island’s intent, a small refuge in the midst of a series of islands lost in the constant bustle of the city. A certain aura of zen does surround it. No matter what happens in the world, this small Buddhist-leased island will persist, with its metal architecture, tufts of grass, and rocky shore.

It’s a stoic little island. If islands could think, at least, I’m pretty sure U Thant would be a stoic Buddhist. It was created as a consequence of underground tunnel construction, a side-effect of the modern world, but a testament to that world’s contradictory stillness. Everything changes, but still, it fundamentally remains the same. The rules don’t change, the people remain incarnations of the same ideas.

U Thant island may be off-limits, but its ethos is available to all. If you ever happen to spot it, you can remember its history, and the opposition to the Iraq War, a sect of Buddhists, and the usefulness of the 7 train. It’s an interesting combination, to say the least.

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