Governors Island, a Grand Space to Play


Visitors strolling the High Line this season encounter a sculpture contrasting a photograph of ice cream with a giant fan that, given the decadence of neighboring boutiques, somewhat resembles an industrial guillotine.

Governors Island actually is an ice cream cone, in outline, just as Italy is a boot. “We use that line in all our presentations,” said Leslie Koch, the outgoing president and chief executive of the Trust for Governors Island. “The ice cream’s the history,” she continued, meaning that the island’s northern half, with its forts and barracks, is like a distinguished scoop of America’s maritime past.

The southern half was bulked up by landfill, first in 1912, most recently in order to build the Hills, a feat of landscape architecture affording a panoramic view of the harbor that reorients perspectives like a mind-expanding drug.

Four hundred years after its settlement by the Dutch — after its tenure as a military base ended in 1996, after proposals to turn it into a casino or a prison or a development — Governors Island has emerged as a grand populist play space.

Ms. Koch therefore ranks as a great New Yorker, but she is not really in control of the culture here. Arranging an event on Governors Island scarcely differs from applying for a permit at other parks, and the various delights that roll down the ferries’ lift bridges — hula hoops and unicycles, Hawaiian ukuleles and bluegrass mandolins, gear for badminton tournaments and pop-up parkour courses — are not curated.

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The island holds many draws for children, including a “junk playground,” a treehouse and a miniature golf course.

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Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times

Ms. Koch does have a say over concessions, however, and they include Blue Marble ice cream, which now offers the Governor, a caramel-vanilla swirl laced, in homage to debris, with Grape-Nuts clusters and velvet-cake shreds.

Which is all to say that Governors Island is the flavor of the season: a day-trip utopia where fashion photographers jaunt for location shoots, and Condé Nast treats its digital-strategy team to beach-party tomfoolery. Pinknic drew a crowd so sharp as to supply much fresh intelligence on keeping Adidas Stan Smiths from looking stale.

Though deed restrictions ensure that the island won’t be overrun by commerce or luxury condos, a day spa is on the way, and the construction cranes scattered across the skyline are reminders that change is a constant. But this is its summer of perfect contentment.

Michelle Palmer and Erik Slavin married June 4 on a grassy slope south of Governors Island’s Fort Jay. The bride, a 36-year-old headdress designer, was dressed as Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons, and the groom, a 49-year-old digital artist, was got up as Theseus. “We condensed ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ down to 20 minutes for the ceremony,” Mr. Slavin said. Puck was maid of honor.

Ms. Palmer and Mr. Slavin were veteran visitors to Governors Island because of their affiliation with Figment NYC, an arts festival conventionally described as “Burning Man without the drugs.” I first saw Ms. Palmer when she, rushing to get to Fairyland on time, politely cut a bathroom line. Me, I was just trying to get my 5-year-old to go before visiting Play:ground, which is, per its creator, a “junk playground.”

“By definition, junk has no value to adults, so children understand implicitly that they can take ownership of it,” said Alex Khost, a 41-year-old web developer who administrates this free weekend playground and its weekday summer camp.

At Play:ground, I initialed a waiver form seven times so that my only son could manipulate trash in a yard that reminded my wife of conditions in rural Guatemala.

Governors Island is just the place to explore the decorum of progressive parenting. Here, mothers performatively scold themselves for allowing their children to run around doing whatever, confessions that are actually boasts about having the wisdom to visit a place where the prize for gaining the top of a rope climb is face time with Lady Liberty.

These juxtapositions — Ms. Palmer in her bridal unitard next to children preparing to revel in rubble — are essential to the local magic. It’s a shame that the goats down at the farm don’t know how darling they look contrasted with 1 World Trade Center. It’s a hoot that a scrappy punk festival tends to coincide with a military history fair. Punk Island was a smash this year, with the headliner, Leftover Crack, supported by bands with names like Sun Rot, Insubordination and Material Support.

I watched a group called Lady Bizness unleash a fine Riot grrrl squall about 20 paces from Figment’s whimsical miniature golf course for a crowd wearing black T-shirts ranging from classics (the Cramps) to novelties (“I’m a divisive issue”). When the kids went for a bite to eat, it was like a night on old St. Marks Place, what with the monoxide fog of food-truck exhaust and the chaos of eight bands playing on eight stages swirled into a hypnotic drone.

It is easy to quickly grow protective of a place like this, which is at once a depository for New York’s eccentricities and a showcase for its popular tendencies. The dolls and dandies attending the Jazz Age Lawn Party simultaneously express a passion for arcana and a thirst for making the scene as they lunch on the lawn (plucking grapes, scooping quinoa, picking at Caligulan spreads of Carr’s crackers) or else cocktail like tycoons in $5,000 V.I.P. tents.

But there are limits. “We did reduce ticket sales,” Mr. Arenella said. “In 2012 and 2013, it started to feel too crowded — blankets upon blankets upon blankets. I want it to always feel that you’re at a picnic.”

Whether the entertainment is hot jazz or deep house or punk rock, the headline act is always the symphonic vista from the ferry — the spires of Midtown and the steeples of Brooklyn chiming, the loading cranes of New Jersey calling to their Brooklyn kin, the towers of the bridges revealed in rhythmic new arrangements as you make the passage to a bite-size empire of ice cream, where the city naps and dreams.

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