Four Freedoms Park: A Memorial for These Challenging Times

It took 40 years, some 14,600 days, between the creation of Roosevelt Island to the ribbon cutting today for Four

Former Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel led the charge to finally open Four Freedoms Park. (Diane Donfareff/FFP)
Smile! (Diane Bondareff)

It took 40 years, some 14,600 days, between the creation of Roosevelt Island to the ribbon cutting today for Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to the 32nd president at the island’s southern tip. Today was the greatest of all those days, not simply because Louis Kahn’s dramatic, elemental vision for the park had finally been realized, but also it was a beautiful day, one full of promise, just like the memorial itself.

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The bright blue sky, the beaming sun, the crisp fall air, the weather truly was suited to this place. Mayor Bloomberg joked with Governor Cuomo before the ceremony began that he had sent all the rainy weather that had been expected upstate, to which the governor responded that was fine, he would just bottle the water and sell it back to us.

But beyond the levity of friends, families and dignitaries, beyond the excitement of one of New York’s longest-suffering projects being realized, there was an twinge of trauma. The weight of history hung heavily on this place. Seasoned politicos and power brokers jammed the folding seats arrayed on Kahn’s sloping emerald lawn. They were all too well aware of the challenges facing the nation, in many ways as great as when Franklin Roosevelt invoked his Four Freedoms almost seven decades ago.

They live on in the nation, but perhaps nowhere more than on this spot at the tip of an island in the East River, not terribly far from where Roosevelt grew up.

Tom Brokaw felt the strain in his opening remarks. “At a time when we are all wondering about our own resolve as American citizens, when too many ideas that are small and divide us suffocate the old ideas that were big and united us, this was a very big idea, the four freedoms,” he intoned.

“We gather not just to honor the four freedoms but to recommit to their place in the lives of everyone, everywhere in the world.”

Mayor Bloomberg felt the strain as well, though he believed it a call to action. “It is my hope that all of those who visit this park will be inspired to take up the challenge that president Roosevelt left for us, of securing and protecting these four freedoms,” he said.

How could such a simple seeming design continue to convey the depth and breadth of the American progressive movement, of FDR himself, across the span of decades, across generations, realities? Governor Cuomo gave all due accord to the project’s architect.

“This memorial is also a tribute to Louis Khan and his vision, that he could design a memorial that would lay dormant for years and years and be picked up and it would be just as vital and current as the day he drew it,” the governor said.

Yet none of the speakers grasped the challenges, both past, present and future, quite like former President Bill Clinton. He even saw a certain symmetry in the horrible delays that had kept the project from being built for so long. He recalled his experience of dedicating the FDR memorial on the banks of the Potomac in 1997, the feeling and hope that had instilled in him, and how those feelings were now mixed by the challenges that once again faced the nation.

“We have gained a lot of freedom, in civil rights and women’s rights, the ability around the world to minimize human suffering with prosperity and healthcare, to minimize the cost of human tragedy,” President Clinton said. We have again been tested by fear, and too many of our neighbors here at home struggle to find freedom from want. This park should always remind us that those dreams are worth pursuing.”

“Perhaps, ironically, it is altogether fitting that this day was delayed until a time when we knew we could never take the four freedoms for granted.”

After the event, Ambassador William Vanden Heuvel, the man who saw this project through, was mobbed by well wishers—his ovation before the red-white-and-blue ribbon cutting outshone all the famous politicians who went before him. Not surprisingly, he had a more optimistic view of the 13-ton granite blocks and rows of Linden trees he helped midwife on this site.

“I think it’s for the good times and the bad,” the ambassador said. “Franklin Roosevelt was a great president because he gave hope to people.”

For anyone who is fortunate enough to visit the park, in good times or in bad, looking out on the city from one of its greatest and most singular vantage points, it would be impossible to take anything for granted. “I think this is the greatest view in the entire city,” Mr. Vanden Heuvel said.

Even the Marine Corps. Marching Band, which closed out the dedication ceremony, was looking ahead, hopefully, but also with a reminder of struggle. Their song? “Good Times Are Here Again.” Staring out over the waters of the East River, Midtown, Queens, Brooklyn, the bridges, the world, all glistening beyond, the crowd could only hope so.

Four Freedoms Park: A Memorial for These Challenging Times