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Personal Photos Capture Life on Governors Island During Coast Guard Years

By Irene Plagianos | August 28, 2015 1:16pm | Updated on August 30, 2015 10:00pm
 The "Through the Years" exhibit on Governors Island features hundreds of photos and personal memories from former island residents.
Life on Governors Island
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GOVERNORS ISLAND — For many New Yorkers, a trip to Governors Island feels like a little getaway, to a quirky, green oasis of leisure — but for Kathy Basa Withers, that quick ferry ride is a homecoming.

Withers, 47, spent much of her childhood living on the tree-dotted island, when it was a base for thousands of U.S. Coast Guard members, and their families.  

Earlier this week, she had a chance to head back the island, and immerse herself in memories, at a new exhibit dedicated to those Coast Guard years, made from personal stories and photos — some of them her own.

“It was sort of this idyllic way to grow up — it was beautiful and safe, as kids we had free rein to run all over the island,” said Basa Withers, surrounded by photos hung on the peeling walls of a historic home on Governors Island, near where she once played as a kid. “It was kind of like living in a resort.”

Withers, who now lives in Staten Island, and two of her childhood pals from the Governors Island years, Bridget Eklund and her brother David Meredith, spent Thursday touring, for the first time, the display of photos and stories in the “Through the Years” exhibit.

Images of smiling kids hopping into outdoor pools, Halloween parties, teens playing guitars on the green fields, with the Twin Towers hovering in the 1970s skyline behind them, and officers saluting the American flag, give a glimpse into a what they remember as a special time on the island.

From 1966 to 1996, Governors Island served as the country’s largest Coast Guard base, with room for about 3,500 servicemen and women, and their families. 

The Coast Guard era was the final stretch of the island’s long military history, which began in 1755 with a colonial militia. Through the years, the island became an important base for the U.S. Army, before it transformed into the Coast Guard base and eventually, the public park it is today.

But for the young people that lived on the island, their unique, somewhat secluded upbringing, seemed more bucolic than militaristic.

The base had its own public elementary school, P.S. 26, along with two pools, a movie theater, a bowling alley and even its own Burger King — the only Burger King in New York City that served beer.

There was plenty of freedom for young people on the island, but there were some rules you couldn’t break — every time bugles played over the loudspeakers, you had to stop whatever you were doing and face in the direction of the flag. You also had to be home by the time “Taps” was finished playing.

The island life formed a close-knit community, Withers, Eklund and Meredith said. For some teens, who were used to moving often, it was nice to be around other young people who understood the itinerant military life, they said. As they got older, they'd get to make trips into Lower Manhattan on their own, but always have their little island community to come back to.

"It was really this wonderful little place," Eklund said. "We were lucky to have lived here."

The "Through the Years" exhibit, which features hundreds of photos and personal memories from former island residents, was mainly compiled by reaching out to people through Facebook, The Trust for Governors Island said.

The display, in Building 7 within the Nolan Park section of the island, is open daily through Sept. 18.