Tiny Canal Park, a .66-acre triangular green space that sits on Canal Street between Washington and West Streets, hides a substantial history.
The city’s ownership of this land dates back to the Dongan Charter in 1686 and the Montgomery Charter in 1730. By the time this land was approved as a site for the Clinton Country Market in 1833, the ground had been paved with cobblestones and had already been used as a public space for many years. A market building was raised and nearby farmers and artisans came to sell their productions.
In 1849, the market building was leased to the Hudson River Railroad as a depot, and the frequent use wore the building down by the time the lease expired in 1860. On May 5, 1860, the New York Tribune reported, “The old Clinton Country Market, the old rotten building in the centre of the triangle of Clinton Market, at the foot of Canal Street, for many years a landmark—has become too dilapidated to answer the purposes of the marketmen, and yesterday the work of tearing down was begun.”
The site had become a dumping ground for sweepings, discarded cobblestones, and ashes from neighboring buildings that needed to be cleared away. In a report from the Board of Commissioners of the Department of Public Parks in 1871, improvements for Canal Park were described. The whole area was trenched and shaped, fresh soil and manure were applied, and the sidewalk area was laid. The park was enclosed with iron railing on a brownstone base which had formerly been used around the City Hall Park.
Under the leadership of Mayor A.S. Hewitt, Canal Street Park was redesigned in 1888 by Calvert Vaux, a designer of Central Park, and Samuel Parsons. Hewitt was an advocate for opening small parks to the public as a way to mitigate crowded neighborhoods. The Vaux and Parsons pathway design for Canal Street Park bulged at the center to accommodate an area for gathering. The perimeter was enclosed with trees and shrubs that provided visitors with a natural refuge from the surrounding city. The wide sidewalk surrounding the park was used for the Flower Market until it was relocated to Union Square in 1891.
Just as the Hudson River Railroad project had altered the park 71 years earlier, once again in 1920, the city’s desire for growth and improved accessibility encroached on Canal Park. When ground broke for the creation of the Holland Tunnel, the park became a staging site for construction and housed pumps that provided pressurized air to workers in the tunnel’s construction caissons. Once the Holland Tunnel was completed, the site was paved over in 1930 and was being used as a parking lot by the Department of Sanitation in the late 1990s.
When the community formed group, the Canal West Coalition (CWC), heard of the city’s plans to make this lot multiple traffic lanes feeding in to the Holland Tunnel, they took action. While doing research, the CWC discovered the history of what was then a dismal parking lot. With the help of attorneys and traffic experts, the CWC brought a lawsuit against the federal, state, and city agencies to give the park back to the people. On May 12, 2000 the agencies signed a settlement and the State Department of Transportation agreed to fund the $2.7 million restoration of the park.
The latest incarnation of Canal Park, double its original size, was designed by Parks landscape architect, Allan Scholl. Drawing on the original design by Vaux and Parsons, the park features the curving central pathway, plenty of seating, and greenery. On October 21, 2005 there was a ribbon cutting ceremony with remarks from city and community leaders, followed by celebratory performances from Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, among others. Today Canal Park is maintained by the Canal Park Conservancy and is a recognized part of the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation.
[The information in this post was gathered from the Carole De Saram Papers, MS3059, Box 9, Folder 13. The images of Canal Park from the 1920s can be found in the Holland Tunnel Construction Photographs and Reports, PR332. The top image comes from plate 21 of Land Book of the Borough of Manhattan, City of New York, Desk and Library Edition (New York: G. W. Bromley & Co., 1927).]
This post is by Ariana Heinsdorf, Archival Processing Intern.