▶ Watch Video: New York City’s Little Island

It looks like something a child might have imagined: a mirage of an island floating above the Hudson River. Eccentric, over-the-top, fun! “It’s leaving the city, going to Oz,” said billionaire Barry Diller.

Little Island is Diller and his wife, fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg’s, $260 million present to the City of New York, topped not by a bow, but a man-made magic mountain.

Replacing a derelict pier on the Hudson River, the $260 million Little Island is a new public space and performance venue constructed on top of concrete pilings shaped like tulips.

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“I kept saying, ‘No, make it higher, make it higher,'” Diller told correspondent Martha Teichner. “What I didn’t realize is when you get up here and you look around, it’s so glorious.”

Call it the pinnacle of Diller’s ambition. “What I would say is, could we build something that could be kind of an icon for the city, an icon of New York?” he said.

“Just by looking at it, instantly everybody knows what it is?” asked Teichner.

“That definitely is what happened,” von Furstenberg said.

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One hundred and thirty-two concrete pilings (referred to as “tulips”), hold up Little Island, designed by British architect Thomas Heatherwick.

Diller’s favorite spot: a view capturing the height of the columns above the water. 

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Von Furstenberg’s favorite spot: the 687-seat amphitheater. “What you feel when you’re here is just gratefulness and gratitude and happiness,” she said.

And judging from the reaction to a recent concert here, it’s a joyful place to get over COVID confinement.

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The site of Little Island is the old Pier 54. In its historic heyday, the ship carrying the survivors of the Titanic docked there; a few years later, the Lusitania began its doomed voyage from the very same spot.

Superstorm Sandy, in 2012, did in Pier 54. Like so much of Manhattan’s West Side waterfront, it was derelict, and had been deteriorating for decades.

“The waterfront was really decrepit, and the piers were crumbling,” said Michael Kimmelman, architecture critic for The New York Times. “The story of the West Side became the story of Manhattan’s reinvention, and the West Side here came to be reinvented as a park, essentially.”

Before Little Island, DVF and BD (as they refer to each other) poured $40 million into the High Line, an abandoned elevated railroad a few blocks away that was turned into a park – so popular it’s been widely copied.

Teichner asked, “Will they be building Little Islands all over the place?”

Kimmelman replied, “I don’t know if other people will, because almost no public money was spent.

That’s difficult to do in other cities.”

In his review, Kimmelman – a fan of Little Island – raises the question: Should billionaires be remaking public spaces?

“We can’t just rely on rich people and their sense that they want to build something and where they decide to build it, to build an equitable, fair, healthy city,” Kimmelman said. “That doesn’t mean that this park, however, is not an asset for everyone in the city.”

Constructing Little Island. 

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Diller said, “We’re lucky. We’ve got resources, so we could build something that was unexpected. Do we have the right to? No, but in fact, this was a torn-down pier in which nothing but a flat space was gonna replace it.”

And visitors seem to like what they got instead.

One young woman said, “It’s a gathering place for everyone. That’s what we need right now.”

One man declared, “I love it. I like the landscape of it and different levels.”

Diller and von Furstenberg have pledged another $120 million to maintain the park and pay for programming over the next 20 years.

Teichner asked, “Why did the two of you decide to put your money on the West Side of Manhattan, as opposed to endowing a hospital wing or something like that?”

“I love public spaces,” Diller said. “They’re not curing a disease, but they allow civic life to be better. I see people walking across that bridge in huge numbers, and it makes them really happy, and all they do is smile!”

Sunset over the Hudson River. 

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At dusk, the amphitheater fills up – maybe the most photogenic spot on a camera-ready island. The nightly show is the sunset over the Hudson. Here on Little Island, a place to look and laugh and kiss, until the sun is gone.

And then, just turn around, and watch the moon rise over the city.

Moonrise over Manhattan.

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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth. Editor: Remington Korper.