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An Island Perch With Postcard Views

By Constance Rosenblum

Vinicius and Lorena Fortuna, a 20-something couple from Brazil, arrived in New York in 2006 with the brightest of expectations, professionally and personally.

On the job front, both found satisfying niches. Mr. Fortuna works for Google as a senior software engineer. Ms. Fortuna, a civil engineer, is employed by a consulting firm that is helping to renovate the 107-year-old Williamsburg Bridge.

But finding a place to live in a big and sometimes unforgiving city proved daunting. Knowing little about New York and having few friends to whom they could turn for guidance, the Fortunas ended up in a prewar building on the Upper West Side in a studio that had been reconfigured as a cramped one-bedroom apartment.

“It was also a fourth-floor walk-up,” Ms. Fortuna recalled. “But the worst thing was that the building turned out to be infested with bedbugs. I’d see them crawling on the mailboxes when I walked in the front door.”

The fridge was so old that when the light burned out, replacement bulbs were no longer available. Trucks barreling down Columbus Avenue jolted the Fortunas awake at 5 in the morning. Occasionally they looked at other apartments, but with little success.

“We didn’t know anyone in the city who could give us advice,” Ms. Fortuna said. “And that made it hard.”

One day the following summer, the couple took the tram to Roosevelt Island, just to admire the view. They barely set foot on the island; they turned right around and went back to Manhattan. But the casual outing introduced them to a corner of the city that would ultimately offer an apartment and a community in which they would feel utterly at home. After their lease on the Upper West Side ran out, Roosevelt Island was their next stop.

The couple’s first toehold there was an apartment in a newish high-rise. It was also a 10-minute walk from the island’s lone subway stop. Finding the bus service erratic, they traveled to and from the subway by bike, but that proved less fun as winter approached and even worse when it rained. Still, they savored the pace and friendliness of island life.

They especially relished the walkway that runs along the island’s western rim, a popular route along which strollers and bench sitters could admire the Manhattan skyline while perched beside the water.

“You see the same people day after day,” Ms. Fortuna said. “They say hi. You say hello. It felt really good. We didn’t know many people in New York. But thanks partly to this street, we got to know people here.”

Two years after they settled on the island and now both 29, they lucked out further when a two-bedroom condominium became available in Riverwalk Court, a brand-new high-rise just steps from the subway. The condo’s owner had been buffeted by the recession, and even before he moved in, decided to sublet the apartment and live somewhere cheaper elsewhere on the island.

The Fortunas, who arrived last February and pay $3,100 a month, are the apartment’s first residents. Everything was so new, they could smell the varnish on the hardwood floors. The chalk-white walls were so pristine, the couple were at first reluctant to hang pictures.

Although modest in size, the apartment radiates traces of the glamour associated with those pieds-à-terre familiar from 1940s movies set in the more luxurious precincts of Manhattan — “all windows and filled with light,” as a friend described the place.

In the living room, floor-to-ceiling windows open onto views of the East River, the 59th Street Bridge, the Manhattan skyline and the seemingly endless expanse of Queens. Barges drifting along the river offer an endlessly shifting vista. Even the hulking power plant over in Astoria appears picturesque. Looking down, the couple can see the grassy field where Mr. Fortuna plays soccer and softball on weekends.

The views are nearly as dazzling in the bedroom, where the bridge seems so close, you feel as if you could reach out and touch one of its girders. Especially for a woman whose workdays focus on the rehabilitation of one of the city’s famous bridges, these vistas seem singularly appropriate.

The furnishings, among them the spare black dining table, the gray and white sofa in the living room and the multicolored pillows heaped on the sofa bed in the second bedroom, came largely by way of Ikea. The store was also the source of an urban scene almost as compelling as the one out their windows — a copy of Angelo Cavalli’s famous black-and-white photograph of the Flatiron Building framed by a dense swath of the city.

The Fortunas themselves are avid photographers, and their walls are filled with images of the two of them, eyes shining and glossy dark hair gleaming, against one or another exotic backdrop. Here is Ms. Fortuna on the beach in Rio. Here are the two of them kissing near the Eiffel Tower. Here they are kissing again in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The contents of their bookshelves seem an amalgam of their varied interests, home to her engineering texts (“Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics”), his computer books (“Web Data Mining”), a few titles in Portuguese and textbooks that have over the years helped the couple perfect their English (“The Ins and Outs of Prepositions”).

Unless you peered behind closed doors to see the two walk-in closets or the washer/dryer, you might miss what for Ms. Fortuna are among the apartment’s main attractions. But you would never miss the couple’s two beloved cats, strays born on the island and rescued by a group called Island Cats.

The Fortunas found Daisy, now 3, who is gray with white feet, through an ad in The Main Street Wire, the island newspaper, where “there was a big picture of her,” Ms. Fortuna recalled. Fletcher, now a lively brown 1-year-old, joined the household as a foster cat and proved so adorable the couple couldn’t bear to give him to another family.

Just as the waterfront promenade helped the Fortunas sink roots in this community, so did the rescue group. When the couple first arrived, Ms. Fortuna used to look out the window of their apartment and see the clusters of people who helped feed and otherwise care for the island’s strays. She and her husband signed up as volunteers and in doing so acquired an instant set of new and compatible friends.

“Really,” Mr. Fortuna said, “these friends are one of the reasons we stay on the island.”

More recently, the couple celebrated another landmark that has helped them feel deeply connected to the community.

“Two months ago they put our building on Google Earth,” Mr. Fortuna, the computer whiz, said proudly. “That made us feel wonderful.”


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