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A summer hot spot is now a winter village. But will New Yorkers visit?

“It is nice
now, but imagine what it will be like when it snows,” said Ira Mittal, 21, a
student at New York University who had gone to unwind with a friend in between
her finals. “I would love to go sledding; I’m from Singapore, so snow is still
a novelty for me,” she said. “I am definitely going to come back.”

But will
other New Yorkers leave their cozy apartments to brave the winds and the frigid
temperatures for ice skating and hot cocoa on an island reachable only by boat?

The pandemic,
in full swing again, may inspire them to. For the first time, with its Winter
Village, the island, a popular summer destination, is providing cold-weather
programming for visitors. The Trust for Governors Island, which oversees
operations for the 172-acre respite from urban sprawl, also plans a mobile
sauna and a dog run in January and an ice-sculpting competition in February.
For snowy weather, there will be sleds, snowshoes and possibly cross-country
ski rentals.

“We had to
think about what we could add to this island that would make it a place New
Yorkers want to come in the cold weather,” said Clare Newman, the president and
CEO of the trust. “To make this work, a lot of people had to believe that the
island could be a positive draw for New Yorkers not just on a beautiful July
day but on the coldest day in December.”

Some
adventurous New Yorkers are interested.

Phil
Caracci, 64, a retired software consultant who lives in Murray Hill,
appreciates having a new and vast outdoor space to use, he said, especially
with the omicron variant spreading across the city. “Particularly as we are
leaning toward outdoors more than indoors it’s nice to have another option,” he
said. “It’s such a peaceful place, you would never know you are a stone’s throw
away from Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

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He said he
would visit even when the temperatures plummeted. “I have tons of ski gear,” he
said. “If you ski in the Northeast you know what minus 20 feels like. I am not
easily scared off by the cold. We are New Yorkers; we embrace the fact that we
have seasons.”

Over the
decades, Governors Island has rarely been fully empty during the winter. Army
forces were stationed here between the world wars, and a large Coast Guard
installation from the 1960s through the ’90s brought thousands of residents
year-round. The New York Harbor School, a public high school that trains
students for maritime and environmental careers, is open during the academic
year. And anyone who works with the Billion Oyster Project, an environmental
nonprofit, or has an artist residency at the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council,
has also been on the island in the cold and snow.

“I was
actually here last winter for an artist residency, and I was able to see the
island after a blizzard, and it’s fun,” said Joseph Pinlac, who is now a tour
guide and gardener on Governors Island. He explained that the island uses snow
plows, but that parts of it are left untouched after a big storm for
recreation. “One day when I was walking I was tempted to make snowshoes out of
twigs.”

Caracci, who
owns cross-country skis, is looking forward to gliding across wide expanses of
unplowed snow. “With Central Park you have to get there early in the morning to
beat the crowds and the plows,” he said. “I would definitely head here to ski
instead.”

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But New York
City is no Vermont, which means there could be plenty of cold, blustery and
snowless days coming up.

Michael
Jarrells, who lives in Brooklyn and visited Governors Island in December, is
not convinced he’ll be returning in say, February. “We had fun ice skating
today, but it isn’t enough,” he said. “To be out here in the cold, they would
have to open more indoors.”

So far,
winter is attracting far fewer visitors than in the summer, when a typical
weekend day can bring up to 10,000 visitors to the island, according to the
trust. The Winter Village’s opening day, which had balmy weather, drew 1,400
people.

Bruce
Monroe, who runs the tour guide program and has been volunteering on the island
for a decade, said that winter visitors had been slow and steady, but that the
number signing up for tours was in the single digits, down from “as many as 20”
a day during the summer.

At Blazing
Saddles, the island’s bike rental company, which will also rent winter gear
like snowshoes, bicycle rentals have decreased to 10 or 15 per day, as opposed
to thousands per day in the summer, according to Barry London, who works at the
shop. “We are even selling gloves for $5,” he said. “That is a new thing for
us.”

But Monroe
seems ready for, and even inspired by, the challenge of making Governors Island
a winter getaway for cooped-up New Yorkers.

“A couple of
years ago they had a party for volunteers in the commanding officer’s house and
they put all these Christmas lights on the pine trees, and there was a dusting
of snow on the ground, and I just thought, ‘This could be a beautiful Christmas
village,’” he said. “Now we have one.”

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New York Times Company

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