In 1887, a nearly penniless Nellie Bly took an undercover assignment to investigate reports of brutality and abuse at the asylum on Blackwell’s Island, known today as Roosevelt Island. The journalist’s subsequent exposé on the punishing conditions she experienced within the institution shocked New Yorkers, triggered a grand jury investigation, and ultimately brought an end to the asylum.
Almost 132 years later, the intrepid reporter will return to the scene of the story that made her a hailed heroine of journalism as a permanent monument.
As the city advances its efforts to address the gender gap in its public art program with new historical monuments of women, civic leaders on Roosevelt Island are planning their own dedication to the Ten Days in a Mad-House writer.
“She’s one of our local heroes,” Susan Rosenthal, president of the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation, told the online publication The City. “The combination of who she was, the importance of investigative journalism and the fact that it happened here just made it perfect for the island.”
The organization responsible for the new monument quietly released a call for artists last month, which had an unusually short application period of just 18 days. The deadline for proposals is tomorrow, July 12. The project budget ranges upwards of $500,000 and included allotments for an artist fee, design service, community engagement, engineering, insurance, and other expenses. Notably, the design guidelines say that the proposed memorial can be in any form, including something digital, sculptural, or interactive.
A location has not been definitively set for the Nellie Bly tribute, but the group is considering four prospective areas around the Octagon (a residential building constructed near the landmarked portion of the old asylum) and Lighthouse Park (located at the northernmost tip of the island).
Born Elizabeth Cochrane before taking her famous pseudonym, Nellie Bly was only 23 years old when she posed as a mentally ill inpatient for Joseph Pulitzer’s publication, New York World. Exposure to the dangerous and inhumane conditions in the asylum shook the journalist to her core; she requested leave of the asylum after only 10 days in the facilities and was only released on the behest of World.
“She started the ball rolling on social justice and insane asylums, even if she didn’t have a thousand percent success,” Judith Berdy, president of the Roosevelt Island Historical Society, told The City. “She got it publicized and that’s what counts.”
The Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation plans to vet design ideas this summer with a winner announced in the fall and construction beginning in March 2020. Unveiling for the Nellie Bly monument is scheduled for May 27, 2020.
Normally, permanent public monuments in New York City must receive approval from the municipal Public Design Commission, which usually consults further with the Department of Transportation and the Department of Parks & Recreation before construction begins. Because the Roosevelt Island organization is as state public benefit corporation, however, it is exempt from the city’s public art process.
A spokesperson for the group did emphasize that the memorial’s project manager connected with fellow planners, members of the design commission, and the city’s Department of Culture Affairs ahead of the project.