Franklin D. Roosevelt was, by achievement and general acknowledgment, a towering political figure and the country’s greatest president of the 20th century. He was also a New Yorker, growing up in the Hudson Valley and serving as a state senator in Albany and, later, as governor.
Yet the man who guided and inspired the nation during the economic crisis of the Great Depression and then through the international calamity of World War II is insufficiently recognized in his home state.
His boyhood home and presidential library, both in Hyde Park, are open to the public, of course, but little else publicly and grandly memorializes the service of an extraordinary leader.
That problem was lessened last week when the Franklin D. Roosevelt Four Freedoms Park was opened on the New York City island bearing his name and practically in the shadow of the United Nations, whose establishment Roosevelt championed. The park is named for the famous Four Freedoms speech FDR gave in his 1941 State of the Union address, just 11 months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. They were a light in the gathering darkness, and if Roosevelt was too ambitious in believing they could be quickly achieved, they nonetheless represent a noble direction.
Plans for the park were drawn up 40 years ago by architect Louis I. Kahn, but he died suddenly in 1974. Together with New York City’s financial crisis, that put the park plans on a shelf, where they remained until 2005, when William vanden Heuvel, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a student of FDR, revived the effort.
Vanden Heuvel was present in 1973 when then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and then-New York City Mayor John Lindsay announced plans for the park; he is now the park’s chairman.
The park occupies four acres on the southern tip of Roosevelt Island, a two-mile strip of land in the East River. One hundred and twenty trees line the park and lead to a bronze bust of Roosevelt. On the back of the bust’s mount is an excerpt of the Four Freedoms speech.
The park may not be the grand monument FDR deserves – judging from the pictures, it looks more than a little severe – but it is nonetheless an appropriate use of space in the state that incubated his ideas of freedom and democracy.
“We hope visitors of different ages will understand that the four freedoms are the core values of democracy and that each generation has to be sure to protect them,” said vanden Heuvel.
FDR’s Four Freedoms are:
• Freedom of speech and expression.
• Freedom of worship.
• Freedom from want.
• Freedom from fear.