“Freely for games and recreative sports”: New York and the small municipal park

Jacob Riis. PR 84, Pach Brothers Photograph Collection

Central and Prospect Park parks dominate New York City park history. While that’s somewhat understandable, it’s time smaller parks got some attention of their own.

Despite New York’s long history, small, city-owned public parks didn’t really become a common feature until the waning years of the nineteenth century. It was then that waves of  immigration and detrimental effects of the growing city spurred reformers like Jacob Riis to action. One of their remedies was the building of smaller, more accessible parks, especially as an outlet for those starved for open space, such as the “crowded districts” of the Lower East Side. Similar arguments were made for the creation of Central Park but, pioneering though they were, the large picturesque designs of Manhattan’s Central Park and Brooklyn’s Prospect Park were not a comprehensive solution. They provided an idyllic escape for the city’s residents, yet were built on what were then the margins of settlement. Consequently, they were hardly convenient destinations for much of the city’s population — especially those of lesser means.

The Calvert Vaux-designed Mulberry Bend Park, shortly after opening, circa 1900. PR 20, Geographic File

In 1887, Riis’ efforts and those of others like him culminated in “An Act to Provide for the location, acquisition, construction and improvement of additional public parks, in the city of New York.” The New York legislature specifically meant this act to increase the number of small parks. Under its provisions, the city allotted $1 million per year for their creation with Mulberry Bend Park becoming the first opened under the act on June 14, 1897.

Although funds were used to purchase land, progress was frustrating slow, leading Mayor William L. Strong to appoint the Committee on Small Parks. In  its 1897 report the committee recommended the establishment of new parks and playgrounds; the latter being a particular concern. They lamented that “since the city has secured larger parks there has been a strange oversight of the necessity of providing, first of all, for the children the opportunity to use these public grounds freely for games and recreative sports.”  It also clarified for the Parks Department that despite the lack of specificity, the 1887 act did allow for the inclusion of playgrounds in the new public parks.

Detail of a map within the Committee on Small Parks’ report, showing overcrowded areas in need of parks, as well as planned and existing parks, 1897.

As Ethan Carr points out in Wilderness By Design, “Progressive Era ‘small park’ design responded to social science, not landscape scenery.”  In essence, the primacy of picturesque landscape parks was giving way to the practicality of smaller spaces and amenities for children. Instrumental to the evolution of the New York park was the Outdoor Recreation League, a reform-minded organization created  by Charles Stover and Lillian Wald that operated playgrounds on New York City park properties. In 1902, the Parks Department assumed responsibility for operating those parks and a year later opened Seward Park, “the first municipal park in the country to be equipped as a permanent playground.

“General View of Playground, Seward Park — Kindergarten Tent in Center” from the Outdoor Recreation League’s booklet “Playground Scenes”, circa 1900.

By the beginning of the twentieth century then, the park in New York City was well on its way to the form we know today, embracing a blend of Olmsted and Vaux’s vision of an idyllic setting within the gritty, bustling city, and a place where children could have the space and infrastructure to be active and healthy citizens.




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