Although most people think of skyscrapers when they think of Manhattan’s ever-changing nature, the island’s parks see just as much evolution. From Washington Heights to the Battery, Manhattan’s parks have been altered through politics, economic turmoil and the demands of its vibrant populace.
Situated on the eastern bank of the Harlem River in Washington Heights, Highbridge Park was created during the early 1900s next to the park’s namesake bridge, which was originally part of the Old Croton Aqueduct system that terminated at the reservoir in what is now Bryant Park. Its 200-foot-tall tower was part of this system as well, serving as a massive water tank. Although the park was long neglected by the city, advocates and officials have worked on restoring it to its former glory for over a decade, and this year the city reopened the High Bridge to foot traffic for the first time in over 40 years.
Bryant Park and its next-door neighbor, the iconic main branch of the New York Public Library, the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, sit on what used to be New York City’s main source of drinking water: the Croton Distributing Reservoir. This massive man-made lake held 20 million gallons of water in a fortress-like granite structure from 1842 until 1900. There was a small park adjacent to it called Reservoir Square. In 1884, as the reservoir’s structure began to near the end of its usefulness, the adjacent square was renamed Bryant Park in honor of New York Evening Post Editor William Cullen Bryant, and in 1934 the park’s signature great lawn was created.
Madison Square Park
The park, which has existed in some form as an urban public space since 1686, has gone through many alterations over the years. At one point, the park bordered the original Madison Square Garden, and a triumphal arch dedicated to George Washington (similar to the one in Washington Square Park today) stood over Fifth Avenue on the park’s western edge. After falling into disrepair in the latter half of the 20th century, the city launched a complete remodel of the park, which today is probably most famous among New Yorkers as the home of the city’s very first Shake Shack.
High Line credit: James Shaughnessy
The High Line
This linear park is one of the newest and most popular in the city, with designers hailing it for its unique repurposing of the existing High Line viaduct rail line as a walkway above the chaos of Manhattan’s streets. The High Line was originally part of the New York Connecting Railroad’s West Side Line, which was used by shipping companies to bring meat and other products to St. John’s Park Terminal at Spring Street, stopping at factories along the way, which had direct connections to the elevated rail line in their buildings. But by 1980, interstate trucking became the preferred transportation method for large-scale shipping, and the High Line’s railway was shut down and fell into disrepair. But the nonprofit group Friends of the High Line helped bring the elevated track back to prominence in the early 2000s by convincing city officials to rebuild the line as a one-of-a-kind public space. It was completed in 2014 and helped turn the neighborhoods around it into some of the most expensive real estate in the city.
The most visited urban park in the United States has a rich history, with its development dating back to the mid-1800s. While the park has seen its ups and downs, one of its most unfortunate moments was during the early 1930s, when a Hooverville shantytown sprung up (which in later years became a historic symbol of the struggles of the Great Depression). Then-Mayor Fiorello La Guardia tasked then-Parks Commissioner Robert Moses with cleaning up the park, and not only did Moses accomplish this task, but he fundamentally altered its landscape with new amenities. Moses built 20 playgrounds, the Wollman skating rink and athletic fields and renovated the Central Park Zoo during his time as commissioner. He also raised funds for the construction of a carousel and numerous sculptures.
Tompkins Square Park
This Alphabet City mainstay is known mainly for its history of civil disobedience and as a home for rowdy youths and the homeless. The park was the site of two of the largest riots in the city’s history: the Tompkins Square Riot of 1874, which pit laborers against police in the aftermath of the economic depression known as the Great Panic of 1873, and the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988, fought between police enforcing a new nightly park curfew of 1 a.m. and young protesters who saw the curfew as a symbol of gentrification. Decreased crime levels, evictions of the homeless and gentrification in the East Village, as well as the closure and restoration of the park in 1991 and 1992, transformed it into what it is today – as much an attraction for families and tourists as it is for young people and waywards.
Washington Square Park credit: William Simmons/courtesy New York University Archives
Washington Square Park
This park – famous today for being the focal point of the Greenwich Village art scene and as the unofficial campus of New York University – actually used to feature vehicular traffic. Robert Moses attempted to expand roads in and around the park numerous times during the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, but he was met with intense opposition from local residents that actually led to the removal of cars from the park. A total renovation of the park completed in 2014 realigned its signature fountain with Fifth Avenue and added new facilities and a dog run, among other changes.
Battery Park credit: Steven Siegel
Although Battery Park has existed since the creation of a landfill in the area in the mid-1800s, the Battery Park City neighborhood, which is often associated with the park, wasn’t added until the 1970s. Back then the neighborhood was just a landfill created from debris excavated for the neighboring World Trade Center. The trash was subsequently covered with sand, creating what seems unthinkable in today’s Manhattan: a beach. The beach, which hosted numerous art exhibits and protests – including the one of the largest civilian rallies against nuclear power and weapons in history – eventually gave way in the 1980s and ’90s to the buildings and waterfront we see today.