U Thant Island (officially Belmont Island) is the smallest island located in the borough of Manhattan in New York City. The tiny artificial island is 100 by 200 feet (30 by 61 m) in size and located in the East River, just south of Roosevelt Island. It lies midway between the United Nations Headquarters at 42nd Street and Gantry Plaza State Park in Long Island City and is legally considered part of the Borough of Manhattan and New York County.
The islet is managed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation and is currently protected as a sanctuary for migrating birds, including a small colony of Double-crested Cormorant, and access is prohibited to the public. The reefs in the waters surrounding the island make it a popular spot for boats fishing for striped bass.
The island has its origins in the 1890s as a side-effect of William Steinway’s construction of trolley tunnels under the river to link Manhattan to his eponymous company town named Steinway Village, which is now in Astoria, Queens. The island was built up on the existing granite outcrop Man-o’-War Reef using excess landfill from a shaft dug down the reef to the tunnels. Steinway died before his tunnels’ completion, and financier August Belmont Jr. finished the project in 1907, leaving the finished islet as a bonus. The Steinway Tunnels are still in use as part of the IRT Flushing Line (7 <7> trains) in the New York City Subway, and trains pass directly beneath the island. Belmont Island, named after the financier, became the legal name of the island.
The small, uninhabited island was almost forgotten for nearly a century, until in 1977 it was adopted by employees across the river at the United Nations Headquarters following the guru Sri Chinmoy, who served as the interfaith chaplain. The group, called the Peace Meditation at the United Nations, leased the islet from the state of New York, greened its surface, and unofficially renamed it after former United Nations Secretary General U Thant, a friend of Chinmoy. Although unofficial, U Thant Island has stuck as the common name for the island. It is now the site of a metal oneness arch, preserving personal items of the island’s namesake.
In 1999, The New York Times Magazine staged an international competition to design a time capsule to preserve artifacts for the next millennium. An entry by Caples Jefferson Architects proposed a granite obelisk on U Thant Island that would gradually disintegrate, leaving only the time capsule by the end of the 30th century.
During the 2004 Republican National Convention, local artist and film-maker Duke Riley, who has traveled to various abandoned islands around the New York City area, rowed a boat with a friend to the island under cover of darkness, proclaimed it a sovereign nation and hoisted a 21-foot (6.4 m)-long pennant depicting two electric eels from the island’s navigation tower. On their return voyage in daylight, they were apprehended by a United States Coast Guard boat but were not arrested. The entire incident was videotaped for a piece Riley titled Belmont Island (SMEACC).